Reggie Aggarwal touts “golden age” of events at Cvent CONNECT 2021

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Reggie Aggarwal touts “golden age” of events at Cvent CONNECT 2021

By Rich Luna | Aug 4, 2021

Reggie Aggarwal sees more than a silver living for business meetings and events in the post COVID-19 pandemic landscape. In fact, the CEO and founder of Cvent believes the industry has embarked on a golden age.

Aggarwal welcomed more than 13,500 attendees to the hybrid Cvent CONNECT 2021—the annual gathering of the meetings, events and hospitality technology and software provider—with a powerful message of optimism and his vision of how business meetings will engage for future events. More than 1,500 in-person attendees participated in the three-day conference that concluded on Wednesday at CAESARS FORUM in Las Vegas, adhering to new mask mandates and safety protocols.

“I want you to try to remember back what you were thinking in March of 2020,” Aggarwal said during his opening keynote address. “COVID is like a freight train and practically overnight the entire world shut down, and in the early days of the pandemic, in-person events were practically non-existent. None of us were feeling very optimistic about our industry.

“Who would have thought that just 18 months later we would have a technology and the expertise so that now we can deliver events that can reach and engage more people than we had before the pandemic even started.”

He recalled at last year’s CONNECT, an all-digital event, saying that even with so many unknowns and challenges, “we never lost hope. I said we had done something that I called the golden age of events. I know at the time, a lot of people found it hard to believe. But I feel now that that’s true more than ever, that we’re going to be entering a time where event programs are among the most important marketing tactic, a time where more events are being organized, a time where more attendees are being engaged, a time where events become an even more critical part of the business landscape. The pandemic has been a catalyst for innovation that I believe will literally change the face of our industry.”

Cvent CONNECT 2021. Read Reggie Aggarwal’s full keynote address.

Cvent CONNECT certainly reinforced the importance of face-to-face meetings, delivering three days of engaging education and networking for an industry hungry to recover its global footprint, one that contributed US$1.03 trillion in direct spend according to the Global Economic Significance of Business Events.

The pandemic brought this critical industry to a halt. But a slew of industry events including MPI’s World Education Congress and the annual Destinations International conference and others have created clear momentum for the return of face-to-face business meetings and events. While masks were optional at those events, the recent flareup due to the COVID variants resulted in Nevada in late July adopting the latest CDC guidance related to mask requirements, recommending that everyone, including fully vaccinated individuals, wear a mask in public indoor settings.

Masks were mandatory for in-person attendees inside CAESARS FORUM. Cvent had already planned to implement duty of care protocols including a daily health screening, increased signage, lanyard indicators to allow attendees to indicate their comfort level, onsite COVID screens, plexiglass and socially distanced seating.

Adjustments were made at evening events to allow for use of outdoor space; for example, at the closing celebration at Drai’s Beachclub & Nightclub, the DJ was moved outside to allow attendees to go maskless if they wanted.

Patrick Smith, senior vice president and marketing officer for Cvent, said safety was the top priority for the in-person activities, while allowing for attendees to make choices they were comfortable with.

“When the mask mandate came down it was all about getting the word out to people, that they knew and were prepared and we had masks onsite,” he said. “All along safety was paramount with us.”

“The pandemic has been a catalyst for innovation that I believe will literally change the face of our industry.”

The event team also created options. For example, rooms for education and meals included seating for those who wanted to be socially distanced; if attendees were comfortable with close quarters, those were available as well.

“It was all about giving people options on how they want to interact and feel comfortable,” Smith said. “The mask mandate in the end was about making sure that everyone understood the rules. What we needed to do was be respectful of people and give people options. We’re seeing such passion to meet that we didn’t want any barriers to get in the way of that.”

Indeed, the trade show floor was a flurry of activations and face-to-face meetings, a welcome sight after last year’s conference was fully digital.

“This feels like CONNECT,” Smith said of the event, which pre-pandemic has attracted upwards of 4,000 in-person attendees. “This room, look around, it looks busy. You look at the general session yesterday, even today… it feels buzzy with a lot of activity. You see the hallways and people hanging out and it feels like a true, real event.”

The program’s hybrid format allowed for general sessions to be live streamed along with sessions from two stages. Breakouts were not live streamed but recorded and all sessions will be available on-demand post event. In one general session, Mark Hoplamazian, president and CEO of Hyatt Hotels, spoke virtually.

“We’re seeing such passion to meet that we didn’t want any barriers to get in the way of that.”

“We were fine with him not onsite because we wanted to showcase the model that you can have a really good speaker even if he can’t be there,” Smith said. The idea was to make the virtual audience feel as if they were watching a TV show, he added.

The approach reinforced Aggarwal’s philosophy on the future of events with four key areas: the rapid digitization of our industry; the evolving roles of planners, suppliers, hoteliers and attendees; the “triple threat” of in-person, virtual and hybrid; and the arrival of the continuous event.

“These four pillars have created this new kind of engagement economy where the opportunities to engage and interact have multiplied,” he said. “Together, they're changing our trillion-dollar industry. It's important that we embrace it, not fear it. The fact that you’re here today at Cvent CONNECT means that you’re doing exactly that. You're embracing the evolution.”

He said he remembered when he would go to Wall Street, it was nice to say the meetings and events industry is the biggest industry Wall Street never heard of.

“Now, because of this transformation, it’s all that people are talking about,” he said. “Now, we believe the interest in our space has never been higher, we believe the power of events has never been greater, and we believe over time that our industry will be in a better place now or we’ll be in a better place than it was before.”

Certainly good news for Cvent, which announced it will go public in the fourth quarter of this year. Dragoneer Growth Corp. II values Cvent at $5.3 billion including debt, and the transaction will provide Cvent with more than $800 million in cash.

Aggarwal said the company is excited about the next chapter and what it means for the meeting and event industry.

“People thrive on the human connection. Meetings and events give texture to life.”

“One year ago, I said we were on the cusp of the golden age of events, a time when more events would be organized, a time where more attendees are being engaged, a time where our industry will be stronger than ever,” he said. “People thrive on the human connection. Meetings and events give texture to life. Connecting is fundamental to who we are, and because we’re witnessing the transformation of our trillion-dollar industry, the opportunities to connect have become more numerous, more engaging and more impactful.”

Smith said the education was focused on how-to solutions.

“We spend so much time on what we think is going to resonate because at the end of the day, content is king; that’s why people tune in, to be inspired, to network, it’s the learning piece,” he said. “We truly wanted to give how-to content…and be very cognizant to give actual recommendations on how (attendees) can pull this off, those lessons learned and the road map and to try things and here’s how you can do it.”

The conference also was another opportunity for Caesars Entertainment to showcase its new CAESARS FORUM, which was scheduled to open last March when the pandemic hit. MPI’s WEC was the first large-scale event in the facility and there has been a steady flow of business since.

“With every conference you learn something, you take something away,” said Reina Herschdorfer, director of marketing at Caesars Entertainment. “It’s really more a question of what each conference is trying to accomplish and what their goals are in terms of how you lay out the facility. The way MPI laid it out worked beautifully and the way Cvent has laid it out has worked beautifully as well. What’s changing are some of the rules along the way, meaning that we have to adapt.”

She noted that when MPI held its conference in June, masks were optional. The latest mandate required the Caesars team to adjust. In addition, she said, the team is gaining more confidence in understanding how to utilize all the features of the 550,000-square-foot facility that includes the two largest pillarless ballrooms in the world and a 100,000-square-foot outdoor plaza that has not yet been fully utilized due to the summer heat. That will change with cooler temperatures, and with Cvent returning in April 2021, there are already plans to use the plaza.

“With every conference, our staff has learned where things are,” she said. “We’re staffing a little bit differently. Our kitchens are more ready, our loading dock is more ready, our team is becoming more seasoned and that makes things run a lot smoother and easier.”

Erica Stoltenberg, Cvent corporate communications and social media, said that with the last-minute mask mandates going into effect just before the event, “this is an incredible outcome and like Patrick said, this really did feel like CONNECT. We’re really happy with the turnout, both in-person and online. The industry is ready, and willing, to meet.”



Rich Luna

Rich Luna is Director of Publishing for MPI and Editor-in-chief of The Meeting Professional.