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Start Small, Test More: Hubilo’s Senior VP Cathy Song Novelli On Success Strategies As Brands Transition From Virtual To Hybrid Events


Globally, the virtual events market size was valued at more than $94 Bn in 2020, with a projected CAGR of 23.7% between 2021 and 2028

Hubilo pivoted to live virtual events, 26 days into the 2020 lockdowns and claims to have over 750 clients across more than 100 countries, enabled over 100 Mn interactions through more than 6K events in its portfolio

Inc42 caught up with Novelli to help brands build a playbook to host hybrid events at scale

“Virtual and hybrid events are here to stay, and event marketers and organisers need to rethink the way they go about executing and understanding success in this new world. Businesses are now able to access the reach, ROI, analytics and more. So now, we need to test out various event formats, determine what works best for each segment and region, then proceed (with many contingency plans).” Cathy Song Novelli, senior VP, marketing & communication, Hubilo

Before 2020, businesses used to host a couple of webinars, and nobody had ever thought of shifting to an online infrastructure for conferences and events. Cut to 2021, the post-pandemic era, and businesses are hosting live virtual events of all magnitude, while event technology platforms like Hubilo, Hopin, Swapcard and Bizzabo are pushing the boundaries for greater growth amid the new normal.

As it happens with many innovation-driven tech businesses, Hubilo has seen a couple of pivots and reaped the benefits before emerging in its current avatar. Back in 2015, Vaibhav Jain and Mayank Agarwal set it up as an attendee matchmaking company. But the company went into event management in 2016 and eventually into live virtual events in 2020. The startup claims that its platform was operation-ready within a month into the lockdown. 

Today, the company has acquired more than 750 clients globally — since the pivot in April 2020, which is in less than a year and a half — such as AWS, Tech In Asia, the United Nations, Facebook, Deloitte and more and has already conducted more than 6K events. In essence, Hubilo has been helping enterprises and businesses tap into the virtual events landscape for growth and scale. Starting its operations from India, the startup is now based out of San Francisco, California in the US, with an office in Bengaluru, and plans to acquire additional office space in London, UK

“Previously, when you had a large-scale in-person event, you might have planned it one to maybe even two years in advance. With virtual, the planning ramp-up is much quicker, and so is how you promote it. With many events being promoted four to six weeks prior to the event, virtual is enabling content to be much more nimble and reactive to what the market wants to hear, now.” said Novelli.

With more than 24 years of experience in marketing and advertising (she is essentially driving brand and business growth and value creation for the category), Novelli has been through physical and virtual events and knows the nuances of both worlds. Working with global brands for years also means she has closely watched the industry’s shift to virtual events. 

According to Novelli, the shift to virtual was inevitable. “I would liken it to when Google was introduced. I was a media planner then and used to buy media for Hewlett-Packard in a specific way. But when Google came and showed how it could revolutionise the way people would discover HP, I thought it was too complicated,” she explained. 

The company stuck to the old way of buying media until the changing scenario forced HP to shift to Google, much like the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced the shift to virtual across sectors and segments.

Globally, the virtual events market size was valued at more than $94 Bn in 2020, with a projected CAGR of 23.7% between 2021 and 2028. Furthermore, Statista estimates revealed that the events industry in India could clock more than $1 Bn in revenue in FY21

This, however, brings in as many challenges as it does in terms of opportunities. The major challenge is that brands now need multiple plans for multiple scenarios. As for Hubilo, the key challenge lies in empowering its customers and helping them understand the new playbook they have to develop in sync with the contemporary context, added Novelli.

What has helped Hubilo deal with client-side challenges is that a good number of its employees have already pulled off hundreds of events. Leveraging its expertise in offline and online events, the startup is now developing its content and playbooks.

Here are the edited excerpts from Inc42’s interaction with Novelli to help brands understand the new strategies and leverage them further. 

Inc42: You have worked with many global brands such as MySpace, HP, Pandora and more. Is Hubilo the first Indian platform that you have joined?  

Cathy Song Novelli: Well, I had worked for several global brands where India was one of the markets. But it was always one of many. This is the first time I am working for a brand that has been set up in India; the majority of the employees are here in India. Luckily, melding our two cultures has been super seamless and organic. I was born and raised here in the San Francisco Bay Area, so the biggest adjustment has been the (working) hours due to the time difference. But that’s about it, really. 

Right now, 40-45% of our business comes from the US, about 25% comes from the APAC and 10% comes from India.

Inc42: How do you see the markets react to virtual and hybrid events? How are brands tapping into this trend?

Cathy Song Novelli: When the pandemic struck, the mandate was clear. You either go virtual and jump into that uncomfortable space, or you lose out on massive amounts of revenue, demand generation and brand growth. So, people had to jump into it.

In India, the US (or all of North America, to be precise) and pockets of EMEA, people understand that the future is hybrid (a combination of in-person and online components). There has been a slight lag in other areas of the APAC, say, in China and Japan. But I would say that the vast majority are either understanding that virtual is here to stay or trying to figure out what hybrid means for them. 

The transition from virtual to a hybrid will be very different for each brand. You have to look at both demographics and psychographics of your target audience. Right now, trying to identify how much of their target groups want virtual or hybrid versus in-person should be the major focus of brands across markets. So, for most of these countries, this year will be about testing the waters to see what is working and what each market is ready for.

Inc42: What are the most effective marketing strategies that brands should leverage to promote such events?

Cathy Song Novelli: I think those will be comprehensive, 360-degree strategies. It is very easy for people to lean only on social media, email and the like. But the wave of people keen to register for an event is often triggered by the thought leadership and the content that you have put out there. And then you spread it out through social media and digital campaigns.

So, when it is time to promote an event, the momentum and the wave of conversation are already there. And you can inform the client that a platform or an event will be launched to delve deeper and address these top issues. 

Inc42: How do these strategies change in the context of the Indian market?

Cathy Song Novelli: What I have actually seen In India (and it blows me away) is the engagement and the desire to learn more. In the US, thought leadership is a slow burn before a wave of ‘wanting to learn more’ and ‘asking for more’ occurs. I think a new thought leadership topic often takes around six months to pick up and gain momentum before the entire industry starts talking about it. But in India, the second a new topic or a controversial, new or innovative way of doing things is introduced, people want to learn more; they want to know more.

When we launched our product, last month on the 15, a vast number of people from India were specifically asking how we pulled off some of the technological advancements on our platform or what sort of vendors should be part of this project. So, I see a much greater appetite for learning how to build next-generation things in India than in other countries.

Inc42: Amid the pandemic, marketing anything was a herculean task, especially considering the mindset in the market today. How can marketers promote an event in that environment?

Cathy Song Novelli: Let me give you an example. During our event, we launched an interesting product, But at the end of the day, what interests people most is how that product can address their concerns.  So, our event was about the struggle  — how to keep people engaged during the pandemic and how to connect with the world and create events that people want to attend. It was all about empathising with the event organisers who faced those challenges in this all-new digitised event space.

We ensured that our message was geared towards the pain and the challenges that event organisers faced over the past year. And that should be the approach of event marketers while promoting an event. Let’s not say: Hey, we are doing something new, and you need to check it out. The focus should be on the bottlenecks people are facing and how you can provide a solution.

Inc42: How do these strategies change when hosting a hybrid event? What are the most prominent trends in that space?

Cathy Song Novelli: This is where things get a bit more complicated. In-person events take much longer to plan — you have to consider the location, travel, accommodations and more. But in a hybrid event, you are essentially marrying two different paths. So, you will need two different teams of specialists, one for the virtual and another for the in-person event. 

Now, take a look at the data to understand what is working and what is not. And feed all of those learnings into your 2022 strategy. I am saying this because some markets are totally ready for the hybrid model and some are not. Also, the size of those events is going to be different in each market. So, start small, test in every region with different audience segments and then see what your audience tells you.

The trend in the hybrid space I have seen so far is that the biggest global events are scaling down the in-person aspect. For example, Dreamforce (one of the biggest tech conferences held by Salesforce) is massively scaling down the in-person ratio of attendees, and then it is going to host multiple micro-watch parties. I think this will be the trend moving forward. The beauty of virtual is that you can be a lot more nimble and act on what is interesting to the market right now.

Inc42: Please help us understand how businesses can manage the costs of hosting a hybrid event compared to in-person events.

Cathy Song Novelli: Frankly, the in-person aspect is a costlier affair than other formats. Think of reserving major conference halls, purchasing food and beverages and all other extra things that occur in person. You can even build personalised journeys for each person at the event. The hybrid model gives you a much more calculated way of understanding the actual ROI. But as I said, people will have to test and learn and see what the cost ratios are for them. One thing is for sure, virtual and hybrid are definitely more cost-efficient.

Inc42: What is the way ahead for Hubilo? What are the immediate goals that the startup is targeting?

Cathy Song Novelli: We have some fascinating new advancements coming out in the next two months. At a more macro level, Hubilo will focus more on different regions. Before 2021, we were very APAC-focussed. But this year, we will focus as much on North America as we do on the APAC and EMEA. Then in 2022, you will see a much bigger expansion in the EMEA region, Africa and the rest of the world.

Our point of view is that everything can be an event. So, basic things like training and enablement can be much more fun through platforms like Hubilo. Additionally, you will see Hubilo integrated into more facets of life. So, outside of trade shows and educational sessions, Hubilo will be integrated into more B2B and B2C events and content-driven environments such as music and sports events.

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