Interview with Steve MacKenzie

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Oliver Kinross had the pleasure to speak with Mr. Steve Mackenzie, VP of Global Channel for etouches, the integrated in-cloud event management software providing full support to event planners. With a wealth of experience in the event technology industry and operations in Asia, Mr. Mackenzie shared many insightful thoughts and advice on the latest industry trends, the transformation of the event technology industry, and the tips to survival in the Asia event technology market.
Mr. Mackenzie points to the increasing focus on audience engagement as the most prominent trend in the event technology industry nowadays. Tools such as mobile apps, Beacon technology, even wearable technology like Google Glass, are all serving to aid and facilitate audience engagement.
‘Being able to interact via technology is going to help delegates tremendously in Asia,’ says Mr. Mackenzie. The Asian audience’s reluctance to actively interact or engage is one of the common challenges for events in Asia. However, Mr. Mackenzie sees event technology as a solution, as technology offers the delegates the opportunity to express their opinions and interact without having to necessarily be exposed in public.
Indeed, Mr Mackenzie sees great potential for event technology companies in Asia. ‘I think there is a hunger for information, and a desire to learn how technology can help with events, especially in places like Mainland China,’ he says.
However, there are other challenges in entering the Asia events market as well. ‘It’s often the mindset for corporates or American companies that what works in America works anywhere else, and that is simply not the case,’ says Mr. Mackenzie.
The vastly different culture and language often pose challenges for companies trying to court the Asian market, and Mr. Mackenzie emphasizes the importance for companies to ensure that ‘the software has to speak to the people who are going to need it.’ One way to do that is to establish local partnerships.
Mr. Mackenzie also mentions that whilst the delegate-facing pieces of etouches are available already in many languages, it is etouches’ ambition to offer a multilingual backend administrative platform for its software, so that event planners outside of the English-speaking world can get greater access to event technology. If successful, it would be a huge step in opening the Asian market to event technology.
Oliver Kinross is excited to see the changes that etouches is making to the event technology industry, and even more excited to welcome etouches to MICE Asia Pacific Exhibition X Event Tech 2014 in Singapore this November.
See below for the full interview:

OKL: Let’s start with a brief intro to etouches. What does your company do?
SM: Sure. etouches is a full event management platform, covering every single planner need, from initial invitations, registration, the website for the event, surveys and the planning tools in between that the planner needs to make sure the event is successful. Some of these planner specific tools include task management, budgeting, scheduling and event specifications, abstract management and many others. For the delegate experience there are modules for setting up appointments, booth sales with an interactive floor plan and even the ability to create a mobile app so that the delegates can access event information via their phones instead of the printed program guide. So, a very, very comprehensive platform that helps the planners to more effectively run the event and provides the best possible delegate experience.

OKL: So does it run on a mobile phone or on a computer platform?
SM: It runs primarily on a computer from the planner’s side, but from the delegate side, a lot of it is available via a mobile device, so the delegate can see what’s going on. But most of the administration is from the computer. However, some of the administrative work, such as event check-in, is available via a mobile device as well.

OKL: I see. What you are doing is quite unique isn’t it?
SM: Yes, there’s a lot of systems and software out there for event planners, but there are very few true platforms—normally the systems just do registration or just do marketing, or one or the other, but very few have a complete platform. And one of the biggest things that makes etouches different from everybody else in this space is we actually used to be an event planning company ourselves. We used to run events and we couldn’t find software we could use that talked the “language” of the meeting planner, so we wrote our own internally, and we used that for about three years to run events for our clients, until such time some of those clients wanted to buy it from us. So we made the unusual move of morphing ourselves into a software company from an event planning company. But the benefit of that is that the software has been developed by people who actually understand what it means to run an event, because they have done it.

OKL: So when was etouches first established?
SM: We initially started to internally use it ourselves in 2005, and we used that to run our own events for our clients. But the company became etouches commercially as we know it today, back in 2008.

OKL: From then to now, do you see any new trends emerging from the event tech market?
SM: Oh yes, there’s been lots of changes in the space since then. Back then a lot of the focus was on logistics and delivery of the event, there was a lot more focus on that. These days, the focus is much more on attendee engagement, and how can you make the delegate experience at the event as comfortable an experience as possible, and you can use technology to help with that. Some of the biggest trends we are seeing at the moment are on mobile. Everybody wants to be able to offer some sort of interactivity to their delegates via mobile phone or tablet, like a mobile app for the event, so they can pull up their schedule and list of speakers and any information about the event etc.
There’s also a lot of interest that’s being put on what’s called web-friendly websites. So, not necessarily a mobile app for the event, but a website that changes its appearance and changes the way that you navigate it and use it depending on the device that you access it from. These days a lot of people are looking at event information when they are commuting, so a lot of things that were traditionally only viewed via a PC or a laptop, are now available to be viewed on a mobile device. A lot of software companies are now doing responsive design, so that the information about the event is available across any device or platform used, without having to create different versions of a site.
So that’s one major trend that’s happening, it’s just mobile in general. Another big one that’s happening right now is the use of Beacon technology, to allow communication via low frequency bluetooth. Beacons are small devices that can send messages out to mobile devices when people get to a close proximity. So one example being you can use Beacon in an exhibit, where the exhibitors will have the Beacon pushing out information about their products or services when people walk past. Or you could use it in a session, in a room to introduce the session to people walking by the room. There’s a lot of applicability of this technology being looked at right now. It’s one of the latest and hottest trends that event planners are talking about.
But there’s also some other things going on too, like Google glasses. Technology is a really interesting place at the moment, and I think event planners are really starting to now embrace the new age of technology. Before, technology was looked at as a way to handle logistics, but now it’s a way to engage people.

OKL: Yes. It’s a really interesting transformation. I see that your company operates on many different areas in the world, and I’ve heard comments that the Asian audience tends to be less active in engaging the audience, so how do you think that affects the event technology market in Asia?
SM: Yes. That’s a very good question. etouches is a truly global company. It is based in the US, but we have offices in the UK, and an office in Australia with other team members based in other parts of the world, and we work with partners in emerging markets like China and Singapore. Because we have always viewed the events space as global, a lot of our clients are multinational so they run events in around the world, so they need software to be flexible enough to offer a great delegate experience in multiple languages, and be flexible to take multiple currencies to pay for registration and things like this.
But to get to the specific point of how to engage clients in Asia, because, you’re right, there is a tendency for the audience in Asia not to be as interactive as they may be in some other countries, like the US, Australia, UK and so on. But this is also why technology is going to help a lot. Because technology in events now offers not just the ability for people to see what’s going on and to look at the agenda, but a lot of mobile apps and a lot of other technology in the event place now allows attendees to actually post questions directly to speakers in their own sessions, and allow them to interact that way. So I think with the Asian culture of not always wanting to stand up and talk in front of a lot of people, this gives the delegates the ability to be able to interact without having to be embarrassed or shy by standing up and speaking in front of everybody else. So being able to interact via technology is going to help audience interaction tremendously in Asia.

OKL: Yes, that’s certainly a fair point. What do you think is the next step for etouches?
SM: Our focus now is making sure we do what we do best very, very well. We are continually rejuvenating our products, making sure that we are taking advantage of the latest devices and technologies that are in the industry. And as we look to grow, and as we look to what we can do in technology we have a big focus on partnerships with other complementary partners too.
We have a lot of partnerships with people who offer other technologies to event planners, say from mobile apps through to venue sourcing tools, to banquet booking tools and so on. We also work with marketing automation systems, customer relationship management systems (CRM) etc. We are using these technology partnerships to bring together the Planner’s complete toolkit. We see the future being about integration, and that Planners want to use the best possible event platform, the best possible marketing automation system, the best possible CRM, the best possible Association Management System, and be able to tie all those things together seamlessly. And part of our mission is making sure that we do that and we do that with the right partners.

OKL: Now that you’ve said that, is there any event tech company that you would most like to see at the MICE expo?
SM: I think any event tech company that is looking to expand globally should very much be focused on what’s going on in Asia. The Singapore market has been a very mature event market for a long time, and I think the people there are typically used to using technology. But as you can see the wider part of Asia, like mainland China, the market is not so typically exposed. Now we have some strategic partnerships there, and also I have spoken to a couple of event companies based in China recently, there is most definitely interest in technology in that area. I think there is a hunger for information, and a desire to learn how technology can help in places like Mainland China particularly. So companies that are looking to expand their global reach and expanding into Asia should definitely attend the event.

OKL: But Asia and places like mainland China is not necessarily an easy market to reach. Asia is a pretty special place, do you have any advice for companies trying to enter the market?
SM: Yes, I agree with you. It is a little bit of a difficult market for many American companies to deal with, because it’s often the mindset for corporates or American companies that what works in America works anywhere else, and that is simply not the case. I’ve been working in Asia now for over 20 years, and one thing I’ve learnt, is that you absolutely have to have local support, you need to have people on the ground that you can work with and trust, and the clients that are going to need the software want to know that you have somebody on the ground that they can talk to as well. They need that face-to-face, they need the ability to have someone there to lead them, someone who understands the culture. And the cultural differences, even in the event space, is very different from that in the US. So my advice would be that companies looking to expand in Asia make sure they have local partners, to understand what it means to do business in the area, and to very much take into account that the software has to “speak” to the people who are going to need it. Don’t try to be used the same way as it is used in America or other places. Language is obviously a critical piece, but also just the deliverability of how things are done, and it’s very, very different. So that’s the key thing to keep in mind.

OKL: Yes, very well said. As you said, ‘language’ is a challenge, perhaps even on a more literal level. Do you find local languages, especially in Asia, a challenge?
SM: We actually started almost from day one as a global company, so on the delegate side, we have twenty eight languages that the programme supports, so the planner can easily turn on most of the major languages they need for registration, for marketing, or whatever it may be. But there still needs someone to input the content, and the content is never going to be automatically translated, because if you just rely on automated translation tools it never comes out correctly. So while we do translate automatically the standard fields we have within the product, the content itself still remains a challenge for the planners. If you want multiple languages, you need to create the content multiple times, to ensure that you are getting the right message across.
One of the bigger challenges is at the back-end of the system, the administrative side. And very few tools will allow you to operate the administrative side in multiple languages. That’s something that we are currently don’t offer, however, we have got plans on our roadmap to make this available in multiple languages over the next 12-24 months. Now, that’s a massive undertaking to the architecture of software to do that, but I think that it is imperative in the long run, if you really want your system to be adopted, especially in China. You can’t expect that everybody is going to work in English. I think that, yes for marketing people, generally English is the global language for business, but for the operations people, they often simply don’t have the language skills. So you have to develop your software in the administrative side to suit the local needs.
Another major issue facing a lot of companies, especially companies like ours that are in the Cloud, is that if you try to get into China, and you are hosted outside of China, you face the issue of the slowness of the system because of the Great Firewall of China. So it is a major consideration if you’re hosted outside the region, how to get behind that wall, and how do you service your clients in mainland China?

OKL: Is there any real solution to that problem?
SM: The solution to that is happening already, and it’s on several fronts. Amazon Web Services which is the largest hosting provider in the world – in fact that’s the platform we use for our hosting – they have recently announced that they are opening an office in China, so they are looking to address options where software can be hosted within the Chinese infrastructure. Currently they are offering their service by invitation only, and they are still not really offering complete hosting, but this is new from six months ago, and we believe that in twelve months or so, there will start being more companies like this being able to offer a solution, because as I mentioned, there is a thirst for this type of event technology in the Chinese event space, and to get there we have to have the infrastructure in place to deliver it. I’m glad to see it changing. And I think there will also be, maybe some local companies that will come to play a role in opening up hosting options too.

OKL: That’s some really exciting changes. I think that’s all I have to ask—do you have any last words for the readers?
SM: I’m excited that this exhibition is taking place, we are very excited to be involved in it, and like I mentioned, the Asian market in general is very important to us as we grow, we’re very excited to be able to attend the show to introduce etouches to the market there, and we look forward to taking many more steps forward in the Asian market in the future.
OKL: Thank you very much, we are excited to have you too!
SM: Thank you.

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