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7
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The True Power of Event Technology with Sessionboard's Newest Account Executive Michel Sayo

Sessionboard's newest AE Michel shares his in-depth knowledge and experience of the conference and live events industry.

The event technology industry experienced an unprecedented jolt at the start of the 2020 pandemic. A need to transform in-person events into virtual endeavors sparked an investor gold rush into the sector, with companies jockeying for position as the ultimate solution to the uncertain future of events being forecasted at the time. It was a scary time for public health and the health of organizations who rely on in-person meetings and events to drive business; but it was an exciting opportunity for those on the forefront of event software development.

Enter Michel Sayo, Sessionboard's newest addition to our burgeoning account executive squad. Michel has spent a decade in technology sales and five years in the conference and live events industry. Michel is a self-described lover of all things event tech and he witnessed the wave of rapid evolution that swept through the space from a unique vantage point. We decided to learn more about Michel's perspective on the current state of the industry, what he saw in the tech-trenches during the great shift of the pandemic, and why he ultimately decided to join Sessionboard.

In this interview we discuss:

  • The importance of associations, and how they can encourage younger generations to join
  • Why the burden is on event tech companies to better communicate their platform's potential to their prospective clients
  • What he sees in Sessionboard and why he's excited for what the future may hold here
This was a great conversation full of candid moments and nuggets of industry wisdom from a man who experienced the highs and lows of an industry reimagining itself in real-time. Enjoy getting to know Michel Sayo, I know I sure did!
Michel and his wife competing in a marathon with the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge behind them.

It all began in the Bay Area

First off Michel, let’s talk about your origin story. Where did your journey in this industry begin?

I’ve always loved technology growing up with computer labs and typing skills in school and being part of the first generation of Millennials that knew both offline and online skills. One of my very first jobs in high school was working at Best Buy selling home theater systems and MP3 players. 

Hey, I had a few MP3 players in my day too (laughs).

"(laughs) Yeah, I mean, I was in awe that you could watch video on your MP3 player, groundbreaking stuff, you know? So I’ve always been fascinated with the evolution of technology and new features, and I had the same excitement when I started seeing all of these new platforms popping up, wondering what they could do.

"My start began from graduating San Jose State with a communications major during the great recession. At first I thought I’d move away from this area to the East Coast, but seeing how the technology sector was really shaping here so quickly. I thought, “I guess I'm not going anywhere, this looks like a great place to grow. '' I found myself drawn to the growth of SaaS platforms first with VoIP business telecom services before transitioning to digital advertising in San Francisco. With seven years of tech sales behind me at this point, I was starting to crave a career shift to learn more about events and conferences. So, I jumped into my first start-up environment called ACME Ticketing, and I was hired on for sales and business development, but they also needed an events coordinator.

That required me to plan trade shows, from identifying trade shows to attend to actually building the environments. Booths, rentals, purchasing services related to that, I was suddenly immersed in the trade show, convention, and conference world all for the purpose of generating sales channels. So I became  fascinated with the idea that you can create a temporary experience, even a fun one and parlay that into higher quality leads and sales opportunities. 

"I couldn't believe how one hour of an event with a drink in a hand, shaking people's hands, could lead to such enterprise level sales opportunities." 

This type of planning helped identify key enterprise clients. Seeing the results that one event could generate nearly 20% in new revenue, I couldn't believe this whole new side of business I had jumped into. I was enamored and wanted to learn everything.

So you saw the power of networking with potential clients first hand, and you were sold on the overall experience?

"Exactly, you’re sharing physical space with competitors, your constantly in contact with high target potential clients, and you’re getting 1:1 facetime. It was infinitely more effective than cold outreach or expensive marketing campaigns that may or may not produce big results. The numbers game was just phenomenal. Our conversion rates skyrocketed, the response time shortened, and marketing campaigns were better focused and efficient. I realized this type of success mainly happened at events.”

"I couldn't believe how one hour of an event with a drink in a hand, shaking people's hands, could lead to such enterprise level sales opportunities." 

Discovering his true calling, event-ually

Okay so you're out of that initial start-up role, but you’ve found an industry that you want to continue exploring. What happened next?

I found my path to the event industry through Steelcase, an office design company based in Grand Rapids, MI.  Steelcase had an experimental division called “Event Experiences”. They were known for creating high quality office design environments as permanent installations but the Event Experiences team instead built temporary installations for 2-3 days use, perfect for the conference industry. My coworkers were interior designers, architects, event professionals, and planners. I found my way to a team that was very well adept in the event industry, corporate and association type of conferences. Their experience was in working for destination DMOs, managing convention centers, and being industry leaders, so that is where I really found my original event family. "

Very cool. So what type of sales were you focused on there?

"That’s when I started developing a new type of skill set, strategic partnerships.  I started working with agencies, convention centers, with event management companies and lots of different types of planners and found win-win scenarios with them there. This developed into a partnership manager role, where I was creating opportunities for the entire sales team."

So it sounds like the strategic partnership approach was a natural progression for you?

"Right, that was the next fascinating thing I had discovered on this career journey. When you can find the right partners to align with, it’s simply working smarter. I'm just not winning business for myself, but with this approach I’m inevitably helping others win too."

"When you can find the right partners to align with, it’s simply working smarter."

From member to leader of MPI

So very symbiotic relationships you're setting up where it's win-win and it's just better for everybody. 

"That’s a good way to put it, symbiotic. I was at Steelcase until the pandemic brought in-person events to a screeching halt.  But before my time there ended, I became plugged into something very interesting that became a real community for me, association memberships. Steelcase encouraged me to join an event planning association. I wasn’t really sure what that meant at the time, and they explained it as, “you're going to be networking with potential clients and other partners. Though there were many to choose from like PCMA and ILEA, I chose to join MPI’s Northern California Chapter to learn more about corporate event planning. I started as a committee member but grew into a chairman leadership role for the past few years. I highly recommend that everyone find an association to join that interests them because they help you grow personally and professionally. 

MPINCC Co-Chair Michel Sayo on stage.

What do you like best about the association?

"The friends and professional acquaintances I've made in MPI have transcended from job to job. They are some of the most supportive people I've come across with an ocean of experience. The community and leaders there have taught me so much about this great industry. Being able to really build relationships here, I think, one of the most strategic moments in my professional life.  I've had the great opportunity to serve as a committee member for social media and marketing, before becoming chair of the Partnerships committee. This year, I co-chaired ACE 2022 which became their first hybrid convention, and mainly served as the digital-platform-mobile app guy.  Next, I'll be co-chairing Emerging Professionals, connecting with people who are just getting started in the event industry, because I've realized how hidden this industry can be and difficult to enter. I want to help other people who may be looking for it, especially students, to find it so it can help them get connected, since this industry is in need of new bright minds and fresh ideas.

In your opinion, what’s the challenge in attracting younger professionals to associations?

"It isn’t something that the tech industry really connects with which I believe is a missed opportunity to help foster and cultivate their workers into growing beyond the duties of their immediate job. Most young professionals I meet crave community and belonging and joining an industry association would be one of the best places for that.

Do you feel that they view it as antiquated? Like, it's kind of old school?

"It's removed, it's something maybe our parents did, but not something they need to do. They just think, “I’ll join a hot startup or well known tech company and I'm off to the races.” But if and more likely when that job ends, you'll leave with a few contacts, but it's still not enough to really grow a diverse professional network. Whereas an association will give you that exposure. I have learned so many different skills, so many unique education opportunities have been presented to me through the association. You can be super involved,  or you can simply go to the networking events, shake hands and have fun. Either way it’s worth it.

I also like how niche associations can be. You will find an association for just about everything." 

"I have learned so many different skills, so many unique education opportunities have been presented to me through the association."

So eventually you made your way to Hubilo?

"Once the pandemic hit, and events found their way online, I saw the growth of platforms corporate and association conferences and conventions. And that is where I found Hubilo as they were hiring their first US team after launching internationally, but they were way behind event platforms like Hopin and Bizzabo and so they needed to build brand recognition pretty quickly. That’s where they wanted to utilize my experience in the event industry, at the crossroads of technology and events. 

I saw it as an opportunity to combine everything I knew about SaaS technology and events. I initially joined the sales team but quickly transitioned to the Partnerships team that focused on aligning with event agencies, AV companies, and planners. This is where I helped Hubilo become known into the deepest social circles of the event industry and built an ecosystem of partners that were enthusiastic with the product. 

Alright let’s talk about some career highlights, the greatest hits to date. What comes to mind?

" At Hubilo, I was on the initial relations team that brought in Freeman who selected Hubilo to be their virtual and hybrid partner. Bringing in Freeman was a huge deal and the team put in a ton of work to get it done to make it a win-win strategy. There were already a lot of other platforms out there, so for them to choose us was such a big moment and was proud to be a part of it.

The other accomplishment for me was helping Hubilo win their first industry award from PCMA for “Best Event Solution” in January 2022.

We were exhibiting at the annual Convening Leaders conference in Las Vegas and I was asked to participate in a heated pitch battle with five other platforms. I focused our story not just on features but the benefits virtual events provided to live events. The main pitch became “Start with a conference, end with a community” and the right tech platform can help you achieve that better than Zoom or social media ever could. I pointed to the benefits of accessibility to those that were not at live events, increasing revenue, turning your big event into 365 engagement and turning your event into a marketing growth engine. We ended up winning the award and we were proud to display that achievement."

"We ended up winning the award and we were proud to display that achievement"
Michel, Dahlia El Gazzar, JUNO CEO Josh Hotsenpiller and other event winners on the "Event Solution Stage" at PCMA in Las Vegas, January 2022.

Charting a course for the future, post-pandemic

What is the industry missing in your opinion?

"I would say that it's truly missing the value of how much the right platform can expedite and grow one's business. 

Because of the pandemic, everyone was trying to apply their live event playbook to virtual events and the virtual events companies told them, “ Yes, of course, that'll work” out of a need to adapt on the fly.  But not all of them did, and there were a lot of dumpster fires of large events that resulted from this miscommunication. Honestly, that really hasn't changed much, today. The sheer number of platforms has started to dwindle down to those who survived the pandemic to post-pandemic shift, but the relationships between many of them and their clients hasn't really improved. It's still seen as an asset only when they can't have a live in-person. Ultimately, it’s not a very good business relationship." 

In conversations with event operators I’ve heard some sentiment that there’s a desire to abandon the virtual model now entirely. Do you think it’s simply a misunderstanding of what a proper platform can be capable of? 

"There's a lot of challenges involved for event planners to see the true potential event platforms can offer. 99% of planners didn’t need virtual or hybrid resources before the pandemic, so now that live events are possible again, they’re asking “Why do I still need this then?” What’s missing from the conversation are stakeholders asking deeper questions like “What have we learned about events and gatherings during the pandemic?” “How can I meet tomorrow’s participants where they are today?” And the answer to that is through technology. Platforms that will move your messages to the right people through their devices, rather than using the old metrics of success from 2019 and before. People are consuming content in entirely new ways now and our industry needs to hire the right specialized skill sets to grow their events past their previous high marks. Platforms are not a competition to live events but a compliment to the marketing strategy. After a session is over, I should have the chance to re-watch and share that content. Planners can help their speakers and sponsors benefit from that too.  

"These platforms can do more than what we think they can. I personally see platforms as a marketing growth engine."

 It takes a lot of resources to physically attend an event. Not everyone has the resources to do that. Virtual and hybrid does offer the ability to reach a far greater audience, but the most important part is to continue engagement via the momentum of your event, with the power of a platform. Transforming your conference into a sustained community is the best pitch right now. I believe platforms need to market themselves as year-round engagement opportunities, not singular events. A proper platform will also allow you to grow one large event into multiple smaller events.

Tech leaders also have to realize that if they've built software and most of their clients are event professionals, then they need to consider themselves an event company. And this has been a big challenge that I've seen with some of the biggest event tech companies. “Are we a tech SaaS company or are we an events company?” That might be a difficult question for some platforms to answer, but it’s a big reason that I love Sessionboard. They call themselves an events company with a software component. Embracing that understanding allows us to identify our core audience, understand our audience, and just relate to our audience better overall.

I watched a lot of the best salespeople in the world enter this industry during the pandemic, only to fall out. They came to sell tech solutions to event organizers, but they ultimately couldn’t relate or had the patience to understand event professionals.

A lot of the investors for all of these new event technologies have just joined this space, but they need to go to actual events. They can't learn the industry remotely. They have to be there. They have to go to the associations. They have to go to association events, things like that."

"I believe platforms need to market themselves as year-round engagement opportunities, not singular events."

So you feel there is a big disconnect between the buyers and sellers of this tech? Perhaps the event organizers don’t know the true potential of some of this event software and how it can help them maximize their objectives. On the flip side, the event tech companies need to improve their ability to understand their audience and communicate how their software can get them where they want to go faster and more efficiently? 

"Yes, show them how your software is going to help them meet their business objectives faster than ever thought possible. There are a lot of different goals for every conference, but those goals and KPIs and objectives can be all very much facilitated within a virtual or hybrid environment as well. That is what the planning industry needs to see, realize and adopt. If their goals are to build registrations, monetize events, get sponsorships or sell product information to the right people, then event technology is the proper path to it."

So in your opinion Michel, how do we close that gap between potential and implementation? Do you have any advice for the industry?

"Planners need to look at goals beyond the initial event. They have to consider the bigger picture, because executing the event itself can sometimes be an all consuming process. So they need to hire folks who can help them with that. It’s difficult for the planning industry to suddenly become event tech consultants. There’s a lot of information to digest when you’re trying to adopt tools that you’ve never needed to use before. But if they're able to see the path to success, to be elevated in that way, then they can start requesting from their managers the budget they need to hire the right people with necessary DES, VES, or VEMM certifications who have that skill set they themselves are missing. 

Honestly, a lot of the corporations have realized this already. The Fortune 100’s say, “Oh, it's only going to cost me $30,000 to grow our brand and product exponentially? Of course we’ll invest. Why wouldn't we experiment with that?” I’ve heard that verbatim at an event. An association manager came up and she was very proud to say there were “no more virtual events”. Five minutes later the next person approached, from a Fortune 500, and she said, “Oh no, we've embraced hybrid events and virtual events and they're helping us grow immensely.” " I worry that the planners who don’t invest more in the right event technology are going to be left behind to make their event compete against today’s content."

Why Sessionboard? What do you see in this company that excites you?

"I believe Sessionboard is a bridge between professionals and adopting more technology for their events. This is an opportunity to help planners truly automate processes during the planning phases of their event, especially around speakers and content management that are both for their live events and their virtual events. Whether in-person, virtual, or hybrid, event organizers can just simply automate their manual processes. If we can save planners 50% of their time with these processes, that will be a monumental achievement and one I believe is possible. This will give planners the time to experiment and invest in new ideas while bringing ROI home. After meeting with the CEO, Chris Carver and Adam Terrell, VP of Sales, I felt these are the right leaders this industry needs. They’re smart, highly motivated, curious, and patient. After their success with the LENND platform, I believe they are going to deliver groundbreaking solutions in event technology. 

"I also love Sessionboard because it’s a master of its trade, rather than a jack of all trades and master of none."
Michel enjoying some leisurely competition.

Off the clock

Alright, well we’ve talked  a lot about the industry and why you believe in Sessionboard. Care to share who you are when you’re off the clock?

"I play pickleball, and I enjoy  making tiki drinks. We go hiking in Yosemite and other national parks and we compete in half-marathons and occasional Spartan races. The most exciting thing though is I'm actually getting ready for fatherhood." 

Oh wow! Congratulations!

"Yes thank you!  We have like seven weeks left, tops. Very exciting! Our nursery is all decked out with jungle themes and we feel excited to become parents."

Well, welcome to the Sessionboard team Michel! We’re excited to have you and your expertise in our corner. 

"Thanks, glad to be here as well." 

Final Words from the Editor

If you’re a conference or trade show manager looking to simplify and optimize your speaker management or exhibitor management workflow, maybe it’s time you had a chat with Michel yourself.

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Sessionboard, INC

Sessionboard is a next generation event management platform that simplifies speaker & content management so event teams can work smarter, move faster, and improve their ROI.

 

To learn why some of the most respected event teams trust Sessionboard to power their operations, schedule a demo today.

Chris Carver

CEO

As CEO Chris brings his diverse background working with nonprofits, events and tech—inspiring him to build Sessionboard.