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[SHOWNOTES] Dan Berger, CEO of Social Tables: How Data is Redesigning Events – ECEO027



[SHOWNOTES] Dan Berger, CEO of Social Tables: How Data is Redesigning Events – ECEO027

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What is Social Tables and what role does it play in the industry?

Social Tables is a company I started six years ago. It is event planning software. More specifically, we have software that helps event professionals collaborate. You may know our diagramming product, which helps people create layouts. We have another product for checking guests in and doing guest list management. It all comes together to manage the event life cycle.

What are some of the iconic events you’ve participated in and what’s your role been?

Our software has been used for nearly 2 million events. I think our pride and joy is the Grammys, certainly. We’ve done the Pope’s visit, when he came here last year, in the layout capacity. I’m talking laying out chairs on highways when he came to Philadelphia. We’ve been used during inaugurations and state dinners. We have been used at conferences as large as Dreamforce. A lot of events!

How does design and seating impact the overall event experience?

I think we, first of all, need to define “design.” Design is something that people just kind of throw around. Really what design means is purposeful design of both content and form. It’s not just about “What colors am I going to use?” or “Where am I going to put those chairs?” It’s about “How is everything going to come together?” When we think about design, we think about everything from designing your event strategy to designing where people go at a certain meal function, and it plays a tremendous role in the success of an event, because I like to say that if you don’t think about design, someone will think about design for you. In other words, if you don’t think and you’re not deliberate about everything that you do when it comes to your event, people will start making assumptions of why you did certain things when you may not have even thought about it that way. It’s a really big opportunity for event professionals to play a key role in the outcomes of their experiences.

In terms of some best practices around design, any current trends that we should be thinking about as CEOs or as event department heads or just running events?

I’m going to tell you something very obvious and then something that’s not. Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and if we’re not thinking about how to use every single minute of the event that you have created, and we’re not deliberate about that time, then it can go to waste, and I think that’s shameful. I’ll give you a quick example. We have an event coming up with the company. It’s our monthly all-hands, and it’s on February 1st. February 1st marks the release date of Version 4 of our software. Instead of just having another all-hands, it just so happens that this monthly all-hands lands on this milestone of a day. We are doing our release party. As leaders, as folks are organizing face-to-face experiences all the time in our companies, we kind of go into the motions and accept the cadence of another meeting and another event, but the reality is every one of those events is an opportunity to do something really awesome, so you should seize it.

The way we’re seizing it is we’re converting our all-hands into a release party. Everybody is going to walk in to music and lights, and they’re going to have little hats, and we’re going to have cupcakes to celebrate. We have a cake that we’re going to cut, and we’re going to play a game of reciprocity to acknowledge all the people who worked on this product. All that kind of weaves together. We used the same budget that we have for every month. We use the same folks, the same setup. We’re not doing anything really crazy, but we’re really being deliberate about how we’re going to execute that event.

How has event design changed over the years?

First of all, it’s a term. MPI, Meeting Professionals International, only defined it four years ago, and I think the way it’s changed is that now that event professionals are seen as strategic partners in the planning and execution of an event, they are consulted early on and throughout the entire event planning process to implement their design thoughts into it, and they’re having a say into making sure that objectives are met.

From a layout perspective, though, are there trends? There certainly were styles that people were attracted to, but now with how people consume information… We know that those temperatures are important. Certain kinds of music make a difference. Healthy foods… Are there trends – from chairs to tables to style of layout – that should be considered?

This is a bit weird to say, but I think the trend is we’re actually paying attention to objectives and goals where we weren’t really in the past, because the more we define what we’re focused what we’re trying to achieve, the more we can use design and leverage it to achieve those goals.

Now, as far as specific trends are concerned, it really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. For example, I think the general session is kind of being rethought. I do think that ’17 is going to be the year of comfort, so it’s funny you mentioned that earlier. I think that it’s critical for people to pay attention.

But as far as design trends are concerned, I’m going to start at a very high level and kind of zoom in. At a very high level, I think that we want to build empty spaces. If I was building a hotel today or I was building a venue, I would have as little stuff as possible – no carpet, no wallpaper, raw ceilings, no lighting. If I need lighting, I’ll do LED, like they did at the new MGM property or the Watergate area in D.C., to really make it as flexible as possible. I would probably not have any furniture, and I would cut a deal with a furniture company to be able to supply me regularly, because that furniture is going to be pretty frowned upon in the next couple of years. That’s a very high level space.

At the actual event level, I think the trend is not having a trend. Take, for example, the general session. General sessions have traditionally been used for relaying information and doing some corporate governance of your association. It’s a general session: you get everybody in a room and you do a vote, or we pass the baton to new leadership. Then we added the keynote, and then we added the flair. We added all these things, because they became the gathering place, and general sessions have really become the town halls of conferences. Rethinking the general session to be that and focusing on the community in the general session, and not focusing on just the constant “Wow!” factor to get everybody under the same roof is, I think, pretty trendy, and that goes all the way down to how you’re going to design the space, because when people walk into a space and they see a bunch of seats, they’re going to sit down. But what if you walked into a general session and only a third of the seats you actually needed.

I’ll add one more thing: the campus style, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. You walk into the conference, and everything you need is in that massive space, and you’re not going to all these different breakouts. Instead of going to the breakout, you go to the corner or you’re going to the middle of the room, and you’re housing all of the amenities of the event in one large space. I think it’s pretty awesome, and it gives you time to explore.

It also produces a little bit of energy around what you’re doing, and there are really innovative ways to separate the spaces, so the noise impact and all of that is a little bit dampened down. As an experience, I find it really invigorating.

I agree. I think as event professionals think about this stuff, they should really think about the fact that their number one just is to create as many positive outcomes as possible.

How are platforms like yours changing the event industry?

Well, it goes back to what I said earlier, which is collaboration. I mean, if we’re expected to create as many positive outcomes as possible, and if the ROI is more scrutinized than ever in an event, then you need to collaborate earlier and earlier on the process, and that means choosing the right space, working together to make sure everything fits, agreeing on the layout and all the different logistical elements that are going into your event, and the more we communicate, the more likely we are to have a successful outcome.

What’s the future of your platform? What else is it going to do for us in the event industry? I know you had toyed at one point with the possibility of people being able to actually interact via social media or via the check-in process.

We’re kind of over that. We’ll leave it up to the 200+ companies that do that through an app. Look, our vision is to make meetings and events achieve great things, and we believe that technology can help them do that. The future for us is any kind of technology that through collaboration makes the experience better.

An example is a much more robust annotation layer to be able to communicate while you’re planning. Instead of just sending an email to somebody saying, “Check out this floorplan and tell me what you think,” it’s leaving a comment on a chair and saying, “What kind of cover do we want to use?” Being able to go into the actual event, seeing it in 2D, seeing it in 3D, working on it with multiple people at the same time that are in different places in the world, and communicating.

What actual infrastructure do you need to support the products you provide, especially in the onsite environment?

For us to provide the service to our customers, we obviously need robust servers. We spend about $20,000 a month just on servers. We have this really cool technology that automatically spins up more servers whenever the servers that we currently have are being used. It monitors the CPU load, and when it gets to a certain threshold, it just literally creates another Social Tables server.

How about me as a consumer? What do I need if I’m using your platform with, let’s say, multiple constituents and stakeholders?

All you need is a web browser. And actually, our new version even reduces the burden. Part of the problem we had is that we have a lot of customers that are hotels and venues, and they use older computers, so they couldn’t load our software, so we’ve created some pretty cool technology that lets anybody load up our software without a very sophisticated graphics processing unit.

If people are using your check-in app, are you providing the hardware as well, like laptops or iPads or anything like that?

No. It’s part of the BYOD movement – bring your own device. We don’t provide that. Generally, people have it, and we’re seeing the lines become more blurry between what people use in their personal lives and what they use in their professional lives.

Where do you see technology going in general in terms of the event space? What do you see coming down the pike? What are you using, or what do you see your customers using, that would be an advantage to our audience?

I think it depends on what the next platform is, and I don’t think we know the answer to that. A new computing platform comes around every 7 to 10 years. First, we had the desktop. Then we had the web. Then we had the mobile phone and the tablet. There’s a new computing platform that comes around every 7 to 10 years. What that is is kind of a question mark. There are a few platforms vying for that. There are the wearables – glasses or watches. There is a car – what if we start spending more time in cars, because they’ll be self-driving? There is obviously the augmented reality and the ability to superimpose digital media on top of the real world. Then there’s the internet of things, the idea that objects can be connected.

The jury is still out on which one of these will take center stage, which one of these will kind of break through the mainstream. A lot of people say voice recognition is the next thing, but I actually think it’s artificial intelligence, and artificial intelligence can play a tremendous role in events. Let me just walk you through a few scenarios.

At Social Tables, we have the benefit of having about 100,000 unique event spaces – museums and ballrooms… 100,000 event spaces in our database. What if, based on your history of event planning, we can recommend to you or your clients which event spaces you should check out that you haven’t heard of before? Just based on our research, event professionals spend about 100 hours a year doing site visits. It wouldn’t be just efficient; it would remove luck from the equation. We want to just do things that help the handshake be more successful, or at least get us to a handshake faster, using artificial intelligence as an example of how we can study your patterns and make recommendations on what might be important to you.

The same thing is true about event design. We’ve been collecting survey results for a very long time. We know events. We know what our participants think of the events we plan. What if we could tie that data to the design of the events and say, “You know what? When we have a general session with only a third of the actual seats that we actually needed, that was way more successful than when we had seats for everybody. People connected more. What if we actually looked at the LinkedIn connections that happen after an event for the next 30 days and prove that there are more connections made as a result of one event as opposed to another?” Just connecting the dots will serve the event professional so much more, because it will take the guesswork out of this stuff.

How far away is this?

We have done some pretty nifty things at Social Tables. Right now, we do this thing called “layout automation,” which takes a room and makes recommendations of how to lay out the room based on its capacity. Traditionally, an event professional would have look over a capacity chart to see what fits where. With a press of a button, we can tell you exactly that. That is one step towards automating the design of the event, and Hyatt hotels is our first partner in that, so we’re really proud of that.

We talked about the ability to discover spaces. Another example is the ability to discover furniture. I love events because we create and tear down worlds in 24 hours. It’s incredible. Hotels are just little universes. You can have everything you need in just one building. If we have this ability to create and tear down a universe, then I would think about “What are the things that I’m missing as a planner? What could I have done differently?” The party that I was telling you about that I’m doing with the company this week – “Where can I get the even cooler hats? Where could I find the best cake maker?” It really depends on our network that we have. Quite frankly, our Google search capacity is limited, so what if we left that up… I always give this example: Would you rather go to a doctor that’s been out of med school for 40 years, or would you rather go to Google for it to tell you what you might have? Most people think, “I’ve got to go to Google! I don’t want to talk to some dude who hasn’t been in the classroom for 40 years!” Hopefully, he or she is going to the associations and getting those continuing education credits (which is what makes our industry go around). But there’s just so much out there that if we added ways of discovering it, it would make the experience we provide our clients so much better. Just making the discovery process better is one example.

Another one is around education. So much of an event, especially an annual or regular kind of meeting, happens because education needs to take place. Instead of us as planners or as the education committee figuring out what we should teach our membership this year, what if we found a way for the crowd to tell us what they want to know? What if we found a way for us to figure out what the crowd needs without the crowd knowing it, discovering the next thing? For example, you can use predictive analytics to figure out “What are the next trends in an industry?” through search and other things, publicly available information, to tell you what your education agenda should be for that conference. It’s us just doing the guesswork. Based on the skills and endorsements (which we all make fun of all the time) on LinkedIn, we can find professionals within our associations or within our groups that are experts in the things, instead of the same dude that’s been speaking at the event for the last 5 years.

In terms of AI and predictive analysis, how about once the event starts? If you could gather that data and then adjust the content and the experience based on the first four hours of people arriving…

That’s a thing. It’s called “event shifting.” People have done that more so with room sets, where there is real-time feedback on the room set. As an example, I spoke at PCMA this year, and they assigned me to this big room. I go to the room and think, “Oh my God! This is so cool. I’m so honored to speak at PCMA.” They said, “Actually, no, you’re in the corner over there.” It was three couches and a dinky TV, but I had 200 people come to my session. People had to start unhinging the chairs and bringing them to the corner to create some kumbaya setting, fireside kind of thing. It kind of happens, and from my understanding, some event planners have done it, especially if you do it the day after.

Look, robotics are another thing. McKinsey has a study that talks about how about 70% of manual human labor can be automated. If that’s the case, then can’t we automate setup and teardown of venues? I mean, sure, we’ve got to do some pretty complex rigging and set up booths, but I could have a bunch of robots just putting down silverware, laying out chairs based on the floorplan they’re downloading through their Wi-Fi. Imagine what that does to labor, and now we can take the deferred labor costs and put it towards something else. I think that kind of technology can allow for the shifting to take place faster.

One of the things we’ve struggled with as an industry is data. Everyone is big on collecting data, but no one knows what to do with it or how to leverage it, and it seems like you’re saying this is the next generation of that, or iteration in the sense of “Let’s start to collect news and change, in effect, what we’re doing much more intelligently.”

Absolutely.

What do you do to maintain your energy around being a CEO of an organization that has over 100 people? How do you stay current? Where are you seeking inspiration?

Andy Grove, Intel CEO. He wrote a book called Only the Paranoid Survive. First and foremost, I’m paranoid. The competitive paranoia, the stakeholder paranoia, the burden I put on myself, all that definitely keeps me going. I also love information. I’m a Twitter addict. I’m a news junkie. Anything that hits my inbox I read, and I get about 40 newsletters a day. I have a lot of inputs. I sometimes mark them all as “Read,” but I definitely get to most of them.

And you attend a lot of things as well, both within the industry and outside of the industry. Any thoughts about what people should be attending, or great things that you’ve seen and done?

I think the best thing anybody can do to get inspiration is go to their convention center. The convention center is public space, it is funded by your taxpayer dollars, and it has a ton of inspiration. There’s nothing that’s stopping anybody from going to a convention center once a week or whatever. Just check out what’s going on. That’s the first thing. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s successful. It’s relatable.

I think festivals are really great inspiration. I’ve gone several times to Bonnaroo. I’ve got to talk about politics for a second. We had an inauguration last week, and then we had a protest 24 hours later. Doesn’t that just remind you of how powerful events are? For me, I get inspiration from that stuff. You know what really inspires me from a leadership perspective? Watching government and elected officials work. Listening to Obama speak. Watching the mishaps of the current administration. I learn a ton from that. That’s just one avenue.

When we meet, we change the world.

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headshotGUEST: Dan Berger

As Founder and CEO of the hospitality software company Social Tables, Dan has been described as a “relentless and focused entrepreneur” and recognized 40 Under 40 in the meetings industry by Collaborate Magazine and Connect Meetings, Event Innovator by BizBash, and named to Successful Meetings Magazine’s “Most Influential” list.

Dan’s technology career started at a young age, first at a digital agency where he worked with clients such as MTV Networks and Glaxosmithkline and then through his web consultancy. After graduating from New York City’s Hunter College in 2004, he became a Special Assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives where he was described as “bright, energetic and hard-working” by the Congressman he served.

Parallel to this role, Dan ran a 15,000 member association where he organized 30 special events per year. He got his MBA from Georgetown in 2010, did a short stint as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, and started Social Tables in 2011.

Social Tables has raised $10 MM in venture capital (Bessemer, Thayer, 500 Startups, Fortify) and has 3,000 customers, including Hyatt Hotels, The Venetian-Palazzo, Goldman Sachs, Live Nation, Harvard, and The State Department. The company has 65 employees and is headquartered in Washington, DC’s Chinatown.

The company has won numerous industry awards, including Best Industry Innovation from ISES, an Honorable Mention from EIBTM, and People’s Choice Award from Canadian Special Events.

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