we built our own virtual platform

A recent survey by a global events organisation found that 68.8% of event professionals were unhappy with most virtual event platforms, reporting a failure in each system to provide valuable person-to-person networking options.

Grace Jackson, Head of Operations at TXF, was one of those event professionals but instead of changing their events (or postponing or cancelling altogether) she and the tech-savvy team at the trade and export events company decided to do something about it – they built their own system.

Here Grace and her Managing Director, Hesham Zakai, talk to Melissa Paulden about *Kujenga – a virtual event platform built by event managers for event managers.

“Back end of last year we decided to move an event (last minute) to Singapore as a result of the unrest in Hong Kong.

Moving was risky but we had to do it. What it taught us was that the market will always respond to change as long as you’re communicative and you’re dexterous. It was a good lesson to prepare us for what was to come this year,” states Hesham.

“Not everyone was able to go to Singapore so we made sessions available online after the event. We had a 85-90% retention rate and although 10-15% is not a significant loss it mattered to us. Making the event part digital was a good experience for us.

Going in to the New Year our plan was always to consolidate events . We ran one event in physical format – in Miami in February – and coming back on the plane I was thinking: that was the last event we were going to do for a while. Nothing was really shutdown at that point, it was just a kind of feeling I had and we started to think about what to do.”

Discussions within TXF were already underway at that stage to build their own platform but with the world entering a global pandemic, time was now against them.

After researching 30-40 different event platforms for their own events and for client events, Hesham and the team started on a learning journey that led to the creation of a brand new platform.

“Our clients are like everyone: they have very specific needs. There are things that they really like and things that they could go without and things they absolutely could not go without.

We weighed all that up (along with our teams’ research findings) and we went for a bit of a combination: a third party provider, adding in our own bespoke software and programmes. By and large it was a good experience, and we used it for several keynote events in the first half of the year.

We realised the virtual events market was full of very talented, well versed, experienced tech people and software programmers but…….they weren’t necessarily event practitioners, they weren’t necessarily people who understood why someone goes to conferences.

We’d make requests such as ‘Can we have polls popping out?’ and ‘Can we show the results instantly? ‘and they’d say: ‘Why do you want that immediately? We can just extract and report at the end.’

Of course we’d reply with: ‘We need them immediately so that the panellists can have a live discussion about it and relate to the audience’s thoughts’ and so on. We found ourselves coaching them in why events are run the way that they are.

That didn’t seem right to us, a company that has technology in its DNA. To have our own data platforms – and to make a bespoke platform around our market - made more sense.”

Empowered by their leaders and teams’ collective experience company culture they worked with confidence.

“Everyone else decided to cancel events or just let it <the pandemic> play out,” explains Grace.

“We were quite good about it and said ‘Let’s just take the bull by the horns and deal with it face on.’ So we kind of got used to operating that way.

Don’t get me wrong – for our first event we had no idea what we were doing – but we all worked it out together and it all went well in the end.

Now we have all areas and issues covered and can deal with anything. We work with banks, law firms, government officials and as you can imagine firewalls are stupidly high but we’re prepared and have an expert development team who can help address these issues on in individual basis..

We created a 'test your connection' page. It allow users to test the four main features on the platform: watching a video, sending messages, joining a meeting room and partaking in the in the group chat. If anything doesn't work, our development team are on hand to assist.

A lot of the time it’s talking to IT departments about what they need to whitelist so that we can get through their firewalls. Myself and our CTO will talk with clients directly in the lead-up to the event to ensure all participants are ready for event day.

Then on the day we obviously have support – there’s always someone you can email with or call. There’s also a chatbox and you can message and someone will get back to you straight away.

It’s been a learning curve. For example, it’s taking a while to learn how to stream (none of us knew how to stream!) and we’re also editing all the videos ourselves but now we’ve done seven of our own events and we’ve just finished our first client event.”

Key pieces of initial feedback from clients and end users show success for the built-in networking options that Kujenga provides.

TXF were determined to include networking as a main feature of the platform (as opposed to a sidebar) and it’s getting a big thumbs up.

“Half the reason people come to our events is to network,” Grace adds.

“We have regional events and global events; people come from all over the world to network and to meet people and whether that’s bumping into them over coffee or in an ideas labs, or workshops, or at the bar, or whether we have a dinner etc. and a lot of off-the-shelf options were very webinar based. That’s great, but it misses half the reason that people come to events.

So we built-in some extra features that are specific for networking such as the ‘Networking Roulette’. This feature randomly allocates guests to groups for networking. We can select the size of the groups and the time allocation. For example, a 30 minutes session, could have groups of 4 people for 10 minutes each. A total of 3 spins and a chance to meet 12 other attendees. It mimics those chance meetings you may have at a physical event. We thought that was really important and that was reflected positively in the feedback we got from our clients in the first half of the year.

The other strong point is the design feature. Other event platforms that we looked were quite ‘clunky, appearing as if they were designed in the early 2000s so we wanted to make sure Kujenga looked really slick, to have the ability to brand it exactly how we wanted, with clever and stylish navigation. We wanted to create sponsor booths in a useful and unique way that would benefit our clients, not just something that is formulaic.”

As well as the Networking Roulette Kujenga also offers each delegate their own personal meeting room where delegates can schedule sessions, set-up meetings and invite participants in. There’s also an option for video calls with panellists. Hesham explains more:

“You can look at the delegate list and filter people by job and by country. Everything has to focus around networking - even the content. There’s a chatbox that runs alongside sessions so that people can exchange messages and ideas and then no doubt someone will follow-up with another peoples and say ‘That was a great point you made in that session about XXXX. Do you want to have a follow-up call?’

Whether you like to:

- Sift through a list and send emails

- Sit in a room and invite people to join you

- Or you just like to chance be put into random rooms with three people or with forty people

we’ve tried to give a networking possibility that works for everyone.”

The development plan for the product is simple: as usage grows, the platform will naturally develop even more. A concept that Hesham welcomes.

“Clients’ ideas and requests will continue to hone and refine the platform. I expect that every time we work with a new client they’ll be two, three, four, five new features that they would like to see – and we’ll add them. The platform we used in November was very different to and more advanced from the platform we used in the beginning of October.

But at the same time we’re not interested in inventing things that already work really well. For instance, we integrated Zoom into our platforms, that way you don’t have to teach people a new system. Sometimes it’s about innovation but sometimes it’s about going back to basics.”

This careful and considered approach to creating a smart and dynamic yet accessible and familiar platform has allowed TXF to grow their audience substantially.

“More people have attended our events and the additional people have been a more diverse audience, a more representative audience. This is a fantastic facet of virtual events.

We now have a 1:3 rule where events that were sold as physical but took place virtually. For every physical place we sold we translated that into three virtual places.

In 2019 we ran a Commodity Finance event in Amsterdam where numbers were 425; 2018 - 350; and 2017 - 275. Very consistent growth.

This year we were headed towards 500. In the virtual format the attendance was just shy of 1500.

But aside from the pure business dynamic of getting more people reading our news and buying our reports it is genuinely nice to see more women attending because the constraints are fewer; you get more minority representation and juniors attending because normally they wouldn’t get the budget signed off to travel etc.

A lot of our business is based on the kind of resources made in developing countries and how they are financed so it’s very difficult to get a huge audience from, say, cocoa producers in Ghana. But if you’ve got a virtual event they don’t have to travel to the physical Pan African event so you’re getting more of the right stakeholders there.

So for me it’s been a great learning experience as it’s been good to see the changing demographics of our attendees. Becoming more accessible, more cost efficient, more representative, more democratic is the best thing about virtual events.”

TXF, it seems, have taken virtual events in their stride and that combined with their event management experience assuredly offers clients more than just a technical platform:

“We can also run the event, moderate sessions, advise clients on how to structure the agenda in terms of introducing breaks and networking, and what they could offer sponsors.

We’re giving them more than just pure technology. For us it’s a virtual event partnership rather than a virtual event platform.

We’ve still been able to recreate that feeling of togetherness, of gathering, of discussing issues. In our industry, while the possibility of physical meetings withered away the need to meet increased because people need financing more than ever. As part of the market, as a facilitator, that’s really heart-warming.

For the future of events, I think virtual is here to stay. People are becoming more sustainability focused, which is as good thing. If people don’t need to meet physically, they can perhaps meet once and meet virtually twice then I think that’s a really good thing. There will always be physical events, they’ll just provide different things.”

Hesham and Grace welcome the opportunity to discuss their platform, provide a demo if you are interested in using it for your events, or simply exchange ideas with other professionals. Please get in touch at hesham.zakai@txfmedia.com

*The name Kujenga means 'build’ in Swahili