Conferences have — for better or worse (and if you’ve ever been trapped in a cavernous CES exhibition hall, you might say worse) — become a significant cornerstone of how industries engage with their audiences, whether they are comics superfans, or iOS developers, or insurance brokers. This year has undoubtedly seen a huge shift in how those conferences exist. The Covid-19 health pandemic has drastically curtailed travel and how people spend time in crowded places, decimating the wider event industry, estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion annually before Covid, in its wake.
Today, however, comes news of a significant round of funding for a startup that is showing one way out of the mess. Bizzabo, which provides a platform to plan and run both virtual and in-person conferences, from its earliest stages of conception and handling sponsorships, through to managing interactions between attendees, and provisioning the conference itself, has closed a round of $138 million.
CEO Eran Ben-Shushan (who co-founded the company with Alon Alroy and Boaz Katz) said in an interview that it will use the new capital to drive the growth of its business, after seeing its business boom this year.
Running conferences for large businesses and event planners, its customers include companies like Uber, Gainsight, Github, WeWork, Accenture and actually — disclosure –TechCrunch. This year, Bizzabo’s revenue has grown 100%, with the number of events organized through Bizzabo up 65%, he said. Meanwhile, the number of attendees registering for events with Bizzabo up 500% and overall usage is up 150x.
“With a vaccine likely and more hybrid events in the future, we anticipate even greater growth,” he added. “Bizzabo has been the category leader, experiencing hyper-growth both pre-pandemic and during the virtual transition, we are excited to continue to lead the market forward by doubling down on product, technology, and user experience, to help organizations unlock the power of hybrid experiences.”
He said that will include the building of more tech to integrate virtual and in-person experiences, and tripling its engineering, product and experience teams, adding two new offices in Europe for the Tel Aviv-New York startup.
This Series E is being led by Insight Partners, the VC known for its big growth investments, with previous backers Viola Growth, Next47, and OurCrowd also participating. Viola led Bizzabo’s previous round, a $27 million Series D in April 2019.
Ben-Shushan did not disclose the valuation today except to say that it has grown by 400% since then. The company has raised some $195 million to date, and for some further context on valuation, recall that Hopin — another platform to help manage events online — last month raised $125 million at a $2 billion+ valuation.
Bizzabo started life in 2011 positioning itself as the “Salesforce for events.” Leaning heavily on cloud architecture and providing integrations into the many productivity and communication tools that an event organizer might use, the idea was to provide a platform to knit all that together and give organizers a way of using apps and online services to extend touch points between and with attendees. That could take the form of registration software to sign people up and collect payments for would-be attendees; chatrooms for people at specific sessions, better ways for exhibitors and sponsors to connect with visitors, and for those visitors to connect with each other during and after the event.
All of that changed this year when key in-person confabs started to get cancelled. At first, many of these just disappeared into a black hole with virtually nothing to replace them, but then gradually, as the year went on, organisers started to seek out virtual alternatives.
“The virtual conference market was almost non-existent” before 2020, said Ben-Shushan. “Pre Covid, a fraction of events were virtual, less than 2% of total events. March 2020 started the virtual transition period in which live events were no longer possible in most parts of the world.”
That transition dovetailed with an even bigger shift in workplace communications: a huge surge of video use spearheaded by the likes of Zoom, Google, Microsoft and many others that had built platforms for people not just to speak to each other over the internet, but to see each other, too. While videoconferencing has been around for years, much of it was based around very costly hardware and software packages used mostly by large corporates. The big innovation was leveraging the growth of faster internet, better basic computers and cameras, and the cloud to make videoconferencing something everyone could use.
And with the arrival of the pandemic, everyone did.
Event organizers seized the moment, too, and the bigger conferences, which had already been offering streams of keynotes and other notable sessions to those who could not attend in person, started to think of how to shift the whole experience online. That brought a whole new set of demands onto organisers and those participating in the conferences. How best to network when you can’t share a drink or an awkward lunch around a high table together? How do you recreate the buzz of a big audience? How do you convince people to pay those sweet, sweet conference fees when all they are doing is clicking on a button in their home offices, possibly still in their pyjamas?
Some of those are easier to answer than others; all of them are a lot of pressure. But for Bizzabo, the challenges were considerably smaller: it found a huge demand suddenly for the tools it had already built to help with many of those communication issues; and for what it didn’t already do, it was easy to identify what that was and add it in. It hasn’t rebuilt its platform; it has just continued to extend what it does within it.
For example, Bizzabo might not have offered or at least highlighted streaming as a core part of its platform, but it’s very much a part of it now, in partnership with Kaltura, which provides live streaming technology as a service.
Interestingly, a lot of the last year for the events industry has been focused on how to make up for what has been cancelled, in a search of like-for-like. Even when it hasn’t found that, the industry has discovered some interesting approaches to provide new, and sometimes even better, bridges between people. Still, Bizzabo ultimately does not think the live event should be left for dead.
“Our data shows that although there are meaningful advantages to virtual events (higher reach, lower production costs), event organizers and attendees want to go back to live events,” said Ben-Shusan. “2021 will mark a new era in the event industry – the hybrid era that integrates experiences of remote and live participants.”
Hybrid will indeed be the name of the game, it seems, even if we still may have a lot of question marks over how big that game will be after all this is over. Inevitably, some events may never come back.
“COVID-19 has permanently transformed the professional events category,” said Matt Gatto, a Managing Director at Insight Partners, who will join the Bizzabo board of directors, in a statement. “Bizzabo’s impressive growth and momentum began pre-pandemic and accelerated during it as they launched the industry’s first end-to-end event technology solution. Their pedigree in both in-person and virtual events and their impressive execution capabilities have them well-positioned to lead this rapidly evolving space. We are excited to partner with their leadership team and to support them in this new phase of growth.”