Tech Giants: Encore CEO Ben Erwin Changes With the Times
What used to be a regular sight gathers some attention during an interview with Encore President and CEO Ben Erwin. Namely, an employee is seen in the background walking down the hall. Slowly but surely, Erwin is calling in the troops for some limited office work. It may never be five days in the office again, but the blending of physical meetings with Zoom calls has begun. Hey — that sounds a lot like the events industry.
There is no company touching as many meetings, events and trade shows as Encore.
Having announced major partnerships with both Cvent and Intrado Digital Media, Encore will almost surely remain an industry mainstay as events move toward a world of face-to-face gatherings mixed with digital experiences.
As we enter this brave new world, Encore is still gently reminding the world that it is no longer PSAV. The new name, the key part of last year’s rebranding, seems ideal for this time. When executed well, virtual and hybrid events produce content worth coming back to. Yet there is more to the new name’s meaning than that, as Erwin explains in this chat about the future of events and leadership through a time of crisis.
What’s it like bringing work back to the office?
I am completely biased in what I want to believe but I think this industry attracts people that like the energy of face-to-face that extends to their work environment. You get time to put your feet up around the table and it does make certain things a lot easier to just connect because you don't need to find an hour in the schedule that no one has. You can just grab them as they're walking by. I think it will take a little getting used to, but I'm hopeful most people will see the benefits. Not every day. But a number of days.
As a leader in the tech space for years, what do you make of the explosion during COVID?
Hybrid events have existed for a decade, they just tended to be kind of reserved for the largest, biggest-budget citywide — you'd have a medical congress and bring doctors in from around the world using it. So, the technology was there, it just was less comfortable for a lot of people to consume. What the last year has taught us is that even my parents can schedule a Zoom meeting. That comfort factor has allowed a number of organizations to expand the people that they can reach.
Now that there’s a race to return to face-to-face, how important is it to reinforce that added dimension with digital?
We believe in-person is a superior form of meeting. But if you restrict your message just to those that can be there in the room, you will have a smaller audience than if you can find ways to creatively open it up. That's where the remote attendee piece comes in. When we say “hybrid” that's what we mean. We're going to have larger audiences in multiple locations. It's still at its core an in-person experience but don't let the messaging and the power of that event stop at the ballroom.
How does planning evolve as we move (hopefully) out of this pandemic?
You're seeing in the planner community a generational shift take place where you know folks have had to learn new skills, but you're also introducing more people to the value of meetings and events, which for all of us in this business should be a great thing. It’s going to mean meetings and events are more important. The returns should be larger than they were before because they'd be needed in person, but now we've realized there's a whole different format to reach really different audiences. But I think the planners are trying to figure out the exact design that solves for that. And in some ways, last year was easier because you only had to solve for the virtual event. Now you've got organizations and planners trying to decide where on that pendulum they want to be in terms of in-person needs and thinking about that remote attendee audience.
Why partner with Cvent and Intrado Digital?
We have our own platform timeline, which we're very proud of, and one a bunch of our customers have used. It actually came from the in-room experience, so it's kind of a second-screen audience engagement tool. It’s very important to us to make sure that we are making planners' lives easier, and that we are bringing all of the solutions to them. We have planners that either had their organizations make a platform decision before we talked to them, or for their event design, a different platform is the best solution. We want working with Encore to be seamless. What we want to be able to do is tell our planners that we have the right solution for you. Our focus is making you and your event successful.
Is it possible that the industry is innovating a bit too quickly?
I would say we're in a mode of experimenting right now. I think what you raise is an interesting question. We've all been in this sprint for a year and a half, and there is an element of “Whoa.” We got a little ground underneath us now, so let's just slow it down and take stock of where we are. We want to use this time to experiment with our customers around different event designs or different technology solutions that could be useful because I think we will coalesce around fewer choices.
Why rebrand, especially during a pandemic?
It’s kind of a signal that this restart comes after what the industry has been through — this incredibly destructive period. I do believe we're coming out to our next great act. But how can we signal to ourselves and our customers that we're turning the page to something new? It’s a helpful signal to turn the page to our next great act.
Second, we had a bunch of brands that had good brand recognition. But for a customer, it was a little confusing who you were working with. And so our ability to rally around one global brand has made life easier for our customers and also internally.
Third, PSAV had an incredible brand reputation and brand recognition, but it was seen as AV. It limited us to in-house or in the venue. What we realized was that we anchored our customers to a subset of what we could actually do for them. The rebranding was an opportunity for us to signal to our customers and remind them more of our production capability and creative capability.