The events industry is recovering from the pandemic but for entrepreneurs working in the industry, there are challenges ahead.
For those with even a modicum of entrepreneurial spirit, the events industry has an undeniable appeal. For one thing, there’s a low bar to entry. If at the age of 18, you book some DJs and a venue to help your friends celebrate their final school exams – well, you’ve put a toe in the events industry waters. And who knows, one day you might be organizing festivals or a global business conference.
But the events industry suffered mightily during the pandemic. Here in the UK, around 126,000 jobs were lost in the sector in 2020. Unsurprisingly, events businesses watched their revenues plunge and according to figures from the Meetings Industry Association (MIA), a third of companies reported lost revenues of between £1,000.000 and £500.000.
If that was bad news for established businesses, it was potentially a disaster for startups working in the sector but if there were casualties, there were also survivors.
Togather is a case in point. Previously trading as Fest It, the company has just rebranded and secured a further $8.5 million in VC funding. When I spoke to founders Hugo Campbell and Digby Vollrath, I was keen to speak to them about the opportunities and challenges they see in a post-pandemic world.
Vollrath and Campbell have been friends since childhood. As Vollrath recalls. “My mother said she would give me a pound if I went around and introduced myself to the boy who had moved in next door.”
Vollrath went on to become a music blogger for the Guardian Newspaper, before edging into events. He worked in the U.S. organizing music programs Britweek in Los Angeles and then went on to work for Festicket as Business Development Manager.
Campbell meanwhile began his professional life as a reporter and ultimately an editor at the Independent online newspaper.
A Lack Of Innovation
The thinking behind Togather was a perceived lack of innovation in the events sector. “What I was seeing was a lot of innovation around selling tickets,” says Vollrath. “But very little innovation in the creation of events.”
In particular, Vollrath and Campbell saw that events organizers were struggling to find suppliers. “Organizers had the problem of bringing multiple businesses together to supply the events,” says Campbell.
As he explains, 99% of suppliers are independents – be they florists, photographers or caterers – and as such they are not necessarily on the radar screens of those who put events together. The obvious solution – and the one that Vollrath and Campbell ran with – was the creation of a market platform to provide the links. It began in a small way with Campbell approaching street traders in London directly and asking them to join the platform. Last year the platform facilitated 120,000 events large and small, with Nike and Amazon among the more notable customers. Growth was organic, with much of it driven by word of mouth.
Surviving the Pandemic
The impact of the pandemic was profound. “We had £1 million in orders. “That went to £1 million in cancellations,” says Vollrath.
So how did the company survive? Well, Vollrath puts it simply. “We had good investors and we remained bullish.”
It was a case of all those involved holding their collective nerve. The truth is that in 2020, no one knew when the vaccines would arrive or whether the first wave of the virus would be followed by a second, third, fourth and fifth. But Fest It/ToGather had completed its funding round. “So we began to develop our platform,” says Campbell.
Perhaps it wasn’t too difficult to remain optimistic. Even in the midst of the lockdowns, the expectation was that once life returned to something approaching normal, the human desire to gather would rapidly return. More than that. There would be a bounce caused by pent-up demand. We would all rush to festivals, sporting occasions and perhaps even to corporate events.
To some extent that has proved to be the case. “The events industry was growing 11% year on year before the pandemic. Now that figure is 14%,” says Vollrath.
But there are challenges. For one thing, the market is multi-speed. “The fastest growth was in consumer experiences and life events, such as weddings. Festivals also returned. The corporate side of things has been slower to return. Perhaps not surprising. Large companies were probably cautious when it came to risking the health of customers and clients.
But there has been another challenge. Here in the U.K., at least two factors have reduced the available workforce. These include the pandemic itself, but also Brexit, which has hit the wider hospitality industry hard in terms of available labor.
So isn’t there a danger of rising demand from organizers running aground on the reef of a below-capacity labor market? Vollrath and Campbell say they have had to be proactive. “There are definitely shortages,” says Campbell. “We have partnered with recruitment agencies to help our suppliers get the staff they need.”
Inflation is another factor affecting the market. Fewer workers mean higher wages, which in turn results in higher costs. “We have had to help suppliers set their prices as well as deal with staffing,” Campbell adds.
So where to next? The $8.3 will be used to scale up the operation with the aim of becoming a go-to-platform for corporate businesses. AI has now been deployed to match the right suppliers to the right events. Growth has resumed and this year the company expects to be involved with 200,000 events. They also intend to take the model outside the UK.
You could probably argue that Togather struck lucky, having secured funding ahead of all the lockdowns. Oher innovators were perhaps not quite so fortunate. Now growth has returned and Togather is among the companies enjoying an upturn. But challenges remain for an industry that nonetheless attracts a great many entrepreneurs. Dealing with the impact of inflation, rising wages and labor shortages remains a real and present problem for those in the sector.