Two local companies are making inroads in the multi-billion dollar virtual events space.
Lunchpool in St. Petersburg and No Limit Technology, a tech incubator in Tampa, have rolled out digital platforms and management solutions that allow hundreds of people to gather online for conferences and other group meetings. The platforms, Lunchpool and Vsummits, each feature networking features, allowing attendees to move from virtual table to virtual table and talk in small groups or one-on-one. Leaders of both companies say their service and ability to create unique experiences help them stand out from the competition.
Virtual events offer a cost-effective way to efficiently bring attendees from all over the world together, according to Grand View Research, a market research firm. They market size was valued at $78 billion in 2019, and it’s expected to grow to at a compounded annual growth rate of 23.2 percent annually from 2020 to 2027, Grand View Research said. Work from home policies and travel restrictions stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic have increased opportunities for industry participants, the company said.
The St. Pete Catalyst talked with Alex Abell, founder and CEO of Lunchpool, and Stan Liberatore, president and CEO of No Limit Technology, about how they are helping keep people connected.
When Abell and his team initially launched Lunchpool in early 2019, they were primarily interested in getting people to eat a meal together. Abell was witnessing a big increase in social isolation and what he called the “desktop dining epidemic,” due to social media use and technology addiction.
But Abell quickly realized the solution he was working on needed to take into account remote workers — even before Covid turned many workers into remote workers.
Lunchpool’s first virtual networking event, “Break Tampa Bay,” took place in January 2020. Abell had plans to do more virtual experiences and incorporate the video conferencing further within the early version of Lunchpool. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March.
“Covid certainly made the decision to pivot fully into virtual events an easy decision. We already had the infrastructure to put on these events, and we started getting a deluge demand after we started helping nonprofits virtualize their annual fundraising events,” Abell said.
Lunchpool’s platform is powered by a number of experiential technologies from all over the world.
“We incorporate tools and tech that I call ‘empathy tech’ to build unique experiences for our users. We’ve been able to wow our clients and their audiences by forming deep partnerships with other startups and tech companies like Jitsi from France, Remo Conference from China, Wonder out of Germany, Spatial Chat out of Cyprus, Toasty.ai out of Asia, and Rally.video out of Canada, among others,” Abell said.
The pandemic influence sped up the feature development. Lunchpool incorporated features such as fundraisers, polls and sponsorship banners because in-person events no longer were an option.
“Being able to help our clients raise as much as $175,000 on a single one-and-a-half hour event made it clear that we had tapped into a whole new market as it unfolded,” he said.
The pandemic emphasized a gap in the market for full-service virtual experience and platform management.
“Our clients simply didn’t want to have to source a platform, figure out how to use it, train their staff, and figure out how to explain navigating it to their attendees. By providing an end-to-end service that handled it all, we were able to really build a name for ourselves. We’re scaling as we automate the robot work and continue to shine on the parts that need a personal touch,” Abell said.
Since March, Lunchpool has hosted 184 event and more than 50,000 attendees. Table-based networking experiences can host 800 attendees at a time, and new experiences that are in development will be able to hold as many attendees as needed.
Event management as a service
Vsummits made its debut in early August at Disrupt the Bay, a healthcare technology conference. A member of the board of Disrupt the Bay approached Liberatore with the product, and Liberatore provided the seed money to develop it.
“I saw it take off like wildfire, especially when Covid hit,” Liberatore said.
Liberatore has since brought in another business partner to work with him on Vsummits. There’s a 14-member team of designers and developers who can fully customize the tool to cater to whomever is trying to put on a turn-key event.
“I’m trademarking EMAAS, which is events management as a service. There’s a number of platforms out there you can use to customize and plug into, but what really separate us is our marketing sauce, so to speak, and our services,” Liberatore said. “Our sweet spot is focusing on training and classrooms, and events that have 100-plus people. With that kind of service, you will have nuances and problems with users, especially when you are talking about a new tool. I think the most engaging companies are the ones that have people who are readily available on the platform live to assist with any issues that may come up.”
Vsummits includes a gamification aspect. For instance, Disrupt the Bay featured a virtual poker game. Each guest was assigned a table but was encouraged to move from table to table and introduce themselves to other participants. Attendees earned cards at each table they visited and the person with the best poker hand at the end of the two-day event received a cash prize.
Vsummits can help event organizers bring in speakers, sponsors and donors and assist with marketing, Liberatore said.
“It’s hard to consider (Microsoft) Teams or Zoom as a competitor because they are more direct to consumer,” he said. “Where we really fit in is organizations that are lean with their marketing departments, or non-profits that are trying to stay lean and don’t have marketing resources.”
The company is getting a lot of request from universities and other higher education facilities that typically use students to help with their marketing initiatives, as well as hospitals that lack the infrastructure to support virtual work and training.
Disrupt the Bay had about 300 attendees. The Vsummits platform is capable of hosting events of up to 10,000 people, Liberatore said.
Both Abell and Liberatore continue to develop their products.
Vsummits 2.0 is expected to roll out in the first quarter of 2021. Liberatore said the next version would be a hybrid model for events in which some participants are in person and some are online.
“We’re going to create a solution for them to still be there live at the event, with people live at the event and not just from the perspective of seeing an avatar on a dashboard, but they’re truly going to experience an augmented reality with the folks at the event, almost like you are sitting on someone’s shoulder walking around the event,” Liberatore said.
The future is hybrid events, Abell agreed.
“We see virtual in-browser experiences as a natural extension of the physical world. There are going to be times when it makes sense to meet in person and others where a virtual format would be a clear benefit. We want to serve both and help people meaningfully gather and connect however possible,” Abell said.
He also sees Lunchpool creating a social network of experiences.
“I strongly feel like the ‘Internet of Experience’ or ‘IoX’ is emerging, and I want to have a hand in bringing it to the world,” Abell said.