The show goes on(line): As events cancel due to COVID-19, Seattle startup builds a virtual platform

(Pathable Image)

On a typical day, Pathable, the Seattle-based company that normally produces mobile apps for conferences and events, might get three to five inquiries on its website from people interested in a demo. As the coronavirus outbreak hit, Jordan Schwartz, CEO of the 12-year-old company, saw the mass cancellation of events across the tech landscape and elsewhere as an existential threat to his business.

Jordan Schwartz. (Pathable Photo)

“We suddenly saw our market disappear,” Schwartz said via phone from his home office. “When you’re a car manufacturer and they say, ‘We’re canceling gasoline for the next six months,’ you’re like, ‘Where did my business go?’”

But Pathable was in a unique position to survive and potentially thrive by creating an online events platform and turn “lemons into lemonade.”

Since the outbreak, the company has fielded more than 50 requests in just two days this week as it made a quick pivot to helping stage full-scale virtual events.

When the company started, it built in the necessary architecture to be an online community for events before mobile and apps were even a thing.

Talking to event planners over the past few weeks, Schwartz said in most cases canceling was a very difficult proposition because of investments in hotel space, registration fees from attendees, commitments to sponsors and exhibitors and more. Those sponsors are looking for some way to continue to provide value.

With infrastructure already in place for its normal business, Pathable’s virtual events rely on Zoom — which has seen its stock rise since the outbreak began — and can still offer educational sessions, webinars, discussion forums and private meeting “rooms.” While many people go to events for the educational aspect, networking is a big part of it.

“Face to face is such a big thing,” Schwartz said. “Being able to look in somebody’s eyes when they’re talking to you and see the expression on their face, that’s a big deal. So we came up with this idea of these ‘birds-of-a-feather’ meeting rooms. It’s a Zoom meeting room with multi-way video, everyone jumps on. It’s a replacement for those topical lunch tables that a lot of conferences do.”

Pathable also reimagined its existing private meeting scheduling tool that allows people to book appointments in one-on-one buyer-seller type meetings at events. Instead of showing up at a table and sitting down for 15 minutes with somebody, the user presses a button and starts a meeting in Zoom and ends up having a video chat — “from the safety of your sterile bunker wherever you are,” Schwartz said.

It all relies on the cloud and event participants who can go online in a home office with a decent laptop, webcam and strong internet connection.

“The beauty of having chosen Zoom as our provider is it’s not like whatever we do is going to challenge the scale that they’re capable of,” Schwartz said.

Event sponsors and exhibitors can create a year-round “virtual tradeshow” through Pathable’s online events platform. (Pathable Image)

ICANN converted its March event to virtual through Pathable and CompTIA has been using the company for hybrid events for some time, embedding broadcasts of their in-person event to remote participants.

As a 20-person company, Pathable’s sales team is a little bit overwhelmed as event planners look for ways to avoid canceling. And the prospect of coronavirus and mass quarantine measures extending for several months has Schwartz considering a potential new normal for the event industry.

“Will all these events that were forced to go online, forced to have virtual events, look around and say, ‘That actually wasn’t so bad,’?” Schwartz wondered. “I’ll bet you that we will at least see a continued interest in hybrid events. You don’t have to pay the full [in-person] price, but you can still attend from home and you get the networking, and a limited set of educational sessions delivered webinar style.”

The notion of conducting remote events makes sense at Pathable, if only because working remotely has been part of the culture at the startup for years. The company has had people working from their homes in Europe, South America and the U.S. since long before coronavirus.

“It’s suddenly desperately relevant,” Schwartz said of his lifestyle where he joked that he goes down the hall to his computer, in his pajamas. “I’m curious what’s going to happen after this all blows over for the Microsoft’s and the Amazon’s and everyone who told everyone to work remotely and then they’re going to realize, as we realized, that this actually is great.

“What’s the new normal going to be like, just for working?”

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