Interview: The Active Network On Acquiring StarCite - Business Travel News

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Interview: The Active Network On Acquiring StarCite

January 31, 2012 - 05:05 PM EST

JR Sherman

JR Sherman

The Active Network's $57.7 million purchase of meetings technology firm StarCite offers the event marketing company, founded in 1998 as an attendee registration firm focusing on endurance sports and other outdoor events, a foothold in a different aspect of the industry: strategic meetings management programs. Active Network Business Solutions senior vice president and general manager JR Sherman and Active vice president of strategy Anthony Miller this month spoke with BTN's Chris Davis about integration plans and the impact of mobile and social media technology. An edited excerpt follows.

Why do this deal?

JR Sherman: A few years back, we decided to take a powerful stance in the professional events space, working with organizations to power meetings and conferences. It was the bringing together of a few acquisitions in the event marketing space that drove the beginning of that division, which we called Active Network Professional Events. We were focused heavily on powering marketing events, so our emphasis was on understanding and tying together the various touchpoints that organization have with a prospect, all the way to that prospect becoming a customer and ultimately a brand loyalist, and what it is that drove them to make purchasing decisions.

We knew the biggest drivers were deep engagement and personalization for better value for the attendee, and ultimately return on investment and driving revenue and qualified leads into the sales channel. As we engaged deeper with our client base, we knew in this other side of the space, known as SMMP, there were many events in client organizations that we didn't touch, yet we never ran into these players, and we found that intriguing. In order to really connect all of the touchpoints that a prospect or customer has and look at the employee side of the organization, we needed to be able to tie in this piece of the business. Between procurement-driven internal events, or large volumes of smaller events, versus the marketing events we had provided technology for, there's always been a bit of a gap. We use Cisco as an example: Active is a supplier for marketing events for Cisco, and StarCite is an provider of SMMP for Cisco, yet we've never run into each other in a competitive environment.

There will never be a single product that meets the needs of every type and size of an event, but if we are able to bring together procurement-driven events with marketing events and break down that wall, there are a couple of very key advantages. One is to give the client a choice among a suite of technology options for any size event and aggregate that data. We focused very hard on deeper engagement and driving top-line revenue; they focused on integration with internal systems, driving efficiencies, saving money and tracking spend. Coming out of the recession, we realized those two things needed to come together. We need to understand how to drive deeper engagement across all customer meetings and employee meetings and more value for the participants in a personalized environment, and ultimately be able to gather that data across all those touchpoints.

Was the deal a result of an intention to broaden Active's focus, or due to an awareness that StarCite was available?

Sherman: We've been talking to the StarCite team for a year and a half. [Active's May 2011] initial public offering was a delay in making anything happen, but we knew there were synergies here. In the last year, in speaking with clients, we identified that the ability to link internal and external platforms would give us a significant competitive advantage, as well as offer our clients much better data.

Anthony MillerAnthony Miller: I've been asked several times what drove this acquisition, and I think the industry did. There is a need across our industry for a place for people to go, no matter how big or complex the event is, where they can get advice and solutions across the whole range. The industry is evolving from being just about logistics and delivery of events to becoming a very intelligent part of the communications mix.

Beyond integration with what Active already was doing, do you see any changes to the SMM model StarCite was pursuing?

Sherman: Primarily our focus is to aggregate the data coming from the various technology solutions, so our customers have a clearer view of those lifecycles. Ultimately when we break down that wall between procurement and marketing-type events, we are going to look aggressively on the SMMP side for tools to drive deeper engagement and personalization. And we'll look to drive more spend management and tieback to internal systems on the marketing side.

How difficult will the development of a single platform be? Is there a timeframe for that integration?

Sherman: The intent at this point is not necessarily to get rid of any of the products, but to integrate the back end and still give clients a choice of technology solutions that meets the needs of the event. We're looking to cross-pollinate some best practices of the marketing tools with the SMMP side. Ultimately, the number-one objective in the integration is to tie the data coming out of them into a single warehouse for business intelligence for clients.

Miller: There's no rush for us to integrate it. We're not going to rush it, so we can continue to maintain business as usual for customers, but we have a pretty good idea of how it will come together.

How do you see developing technology like mobile and social media playing a part in the new offering?

Miller: In the business world, events are becoming much more part of an ongoing conversation between a company and its employees and its customers. We believe events will fit into a broader online community with audiences based around an interest or a brand, where they can interact and collaborate through mobile, social networks and recommendations and personalization, through online content and ultimately face-to-face content. It's that evolution from a single event to an extended event to an ongoing conversation with events being a part that we believe is happening, and it couldn’t happen without those technologies, those communities and that intelligence around the audience.

Sherman: We have many clients, especially on the enterprise side, who are willing to invest in deploying these communities and mobile technologies to engage deeper with their clients and prospects. It's really about taking the technology we've built for those early adopters and making it accessible to the small and medium business. It's about gaining those best practices, building that technology and making it scalable to the SMMP market.

Has there been enough action in this space to get a sense of what those best practices are?

Miller: An online community or mobile solution really is only as good as the communication around it—the promotion and awareness of its existence and the value it will bring. We've made recommendations with mobile or social where we added add a two-minute introduction into a keynote to tell the audience that there's a mobile app and/or a community, and here's what it's going to do and how it will improve experiences. Simple things like that will increase adoption.

Mobile [attendee] surveys are another example. We had a lot of nervousness from one of our clients who didn't want to go to mobile surveys, because what if people didn't have the app, etc.? Simply put, we said another best practice is never to make the full switch. Continue with paper surveys for the first year or two and complement them with mobile surveys, so there's a transition and you give attendees as many ways as possible to give you that information. Now, the statistics of real-time mobile feedback are phenomenal.

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