When the pandemic hit, countless client meetings, trade shows, annual conferences, and other face-to-face business events were put on hold. Virtual technologies, including Zoom, Google Meet, Webex, and Microsoft Teams, allowed many business meetings to be conducted remotely. But for larger gatherings, these platforms had their limits.
For nearly 20 years, EideCom has produced special events. The Brooklyn Park-based events production agency has a client base that includes Snap Fitness, Cargill, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Whatever the venue size—sometimes as large as a sports stadium—EideCom handles the audiovisual aspects, the lighting, and the overall management.
Before the pandemic upended the events industry, the Minnesota Vikings and a few other clients asked EideCom to provide livestreaming so they could serve remote audiences who could watch events live or on demand.
So when Covid lockdowns precluded large in-person gatherings, EideCom sped up the development of Second Stage. It’s a virtual platform designed to provide “an interactive experience for the audience to connect with the main stage,” says EideCom CEO Charles Eide. It’s the type of experience, he and his clients contend, that can’t quite be replicated on Zoom and its tech peers.
The pandemic taught many businesses new ways to work more efficiently. Now, with organizations dealing with the uncertainties of the Delta variant and employee demand for greater flexibility, some technology-driven changes look likely to stick.
Hybrid event technology
Development of Second Stage and its software began in earnest in April 2020. A year ago, it was ready for its first client, a St. Paul-based company that “gets people in the trades together for training in sales, marketing, and best practices,” Eide says. The event was held in Phoenix, with 500 people attending in person and 1,000 participating remotely via Second Stage.
To create the event in Phoenix, EideCom set up all the equipment and video technology in the hotel ballroom where the presentations would be given. It then streamed the visual “content” into Second Stage, which transmitted it to the laptops and desktops of people watching online. “It was a hybrid event that allowed their audience to choose if they wanted in-person or online,” Eide says.
Breakthrough, a Green Bay, Wisconsin-based logistics company, used Second Stage to stream its annual gathering of shipper clients from Green Bay’s Meyer Theater. Breakthrough used Second Stage technology to pre-record event activities, hosting 100 attendees in person and about 250 virtually.
Second Stage’s biggest event so far has been a youth conference for more than 20,000 attendees held in February. EideCom “trucked out all of this equipment to Denver and basically built a giant studio,” Eide says, then streamed the event to the Second Stage online platform. “You could watch the main stage, you could chat on the side, you could click on people and interact with them, you could go to the sponsors and talk to them,” he says.
Eide notes that his company designed Second Stage to be intuitive, so it could be as simple to use as walking into a conference room or ballroom. “We didn’t want Second Stage to be so confusing that you’d need an outside consultant to teach you how to use it,” he adds.
While in-person events have been returning to various venues, Eide maintains that Second Stage will offer a great backup plan for companies dealing with ongoing worries over the Delta variant. After the pandemic finally subsides, Eide expects that many organizations will continue to offer the option to participate in events in person or online. It’s a hybrid model for business events, somewhat analogous to the combination of remote and in-office work that may become the new normal for many companies.
Upscale customer connections
Ecolab responded to the new normal by deploying new forms of technology. After the pandemic’s arrival, many employees of the St. Paul-based supplier of cleaning and purification products and services faced restricted access to many customer sites. “About half of our company is out there with customers in their locations every day, helping them solve problems,” says Marc Adams, executive vice president of commercial digital solutions. In 2020, Ecolab had to find ways to serve its customers without putting its customers and employees in situations where they could be infected with Covid.
One of its technological solutions was Microsoft HoloLens, which employs “smartglasses” to create “mixed reality” environments that combine the physical and virtual. The HoloLens platform “has opened up access to our team more broadly than ever before,” Adams says.
Instead of flying great distances to help customers troubleshoot Ecolab equipment, company experts simply ship them the HoloLens eyewear. The following day, a customer’s employee slips on the special specs, allowing the Ecolab technician to see what the customer sees. Ecolab experts can direct customers to where they need to go and what they need to do, Adams says. “If they’re not understanding what they’re seeing, our expert can guide them: ‘OK, that on the left, let’s look at that.’ ”
Adams argues these kinds of technologies will be essential beyond the pandemic because Ecolab’s customers will continue to face challenges, including water scarcity, food safety, effects of climate change, and effective health care delivery. Ecolab offers products and services that address all these issues.
Remote technologies could prove to be a more cost-effective way for Ecolab to support its customers. “The challenges are only becoming bigger for our customers,” Adams says. “We’re going to continue to innovate in digital in order to help solve the next crises once Covid is—I hope—behind us.”
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C.H. Robinson, an Eden Prairie-based logistics company, also had to speed up its tech deployment plans when Covid-19 hit. Like most employers, C.H. Robinson invested in networking, security, mobility, and collaboration technologies such as Microsoft M365, which includes Teams and Yammer. These efforts allowed its newly remote employees to securely communicate and collaborate with each other, their carriers, and their customers.
To help customers better monitor shipments remotely, C.H. Robinson added features to Navisphere, its multimodal transportation management platform that connects nearly 200,000 customers and transportation providers worldwide.
It also has increased features on Navisphere Vision, its software-as-a-service platform that provides real-time order and shipment information. As part of the platform, C.H. Robinson has incorporated Microsoft’s Power BI, a business analytics tool that provides Robinson customers with real-time interactive visualizations of their shipments, primarily via dashboards.
“Harnessing the power of technology has been central to every step we have taken as an industry to navigate one of the most tumultuous years we’ve ever seen,” says C.H. Robinson chief technology officer Mike Neill. Those digital innovations haven’t slowed down. In the first quarter of 2021, the company released 128 new Navisphere features, including more flexible automated booking options for carriers and enhanced forecasting for procurement. Hundreds of additional features are planned for the rest of the year.
Covid business bump
Numerous businesses saw downturns in their 2020 revenue. Duluth-based marketing agency Giant Voices wasn’t one of them. Giant Voices’ top-line revenue dropped 17 percent in April 2020, which CEO Pascha Apter describes as “terrifying.” Yet, she adds, “we ended up having our most successful year ever in 2020” in terms of revenue and client acquisition. Technology was the main reason.
With business travel grounded, Giant Voices needed new ways to meet new clients and help existing ones pivot to new opportunities. That required the company to do some pivoting of its own. In the past, agency people would drive or fly to meet potential and existing clients, make pitches, and devise strategies. “It was an intense, rich experience for all of us,” Apter says.
But could that experience be replicated remotely? “Frankly, we weren’t sure how that was going to go,” Apter says. Could the experience be as robust virtually as it was in person?
Giant Voices found that it could be. It created what it calls “vision sharing,” which Apter describes as “a facilitation process that we go through with our clients” to review their goals and messaging. It incorporates the capabilities of videoconferencing technology such as Zoom and Teams, and it includes chat, whiteboards, PowerPoint visuals, and drawing. “It isn’t revolutionary technology,” Apter acknowledges. “We’ve used platforms that we already had access to, but in different ways. And they’ve produced a powerful and significant ROI for our business.”
What Giant Voices discovered, she adds, “was that not only were we able to do that and have a rich experience as we did in the past, it has actually been better in a lot of ways.” For one thing, more people on the client side could join the discussion.
Before Covid, in-person meetings typically were limited to about six to eight top managers. Now, vision sharing sessions often gather 20 or more of the client’s employees, who can provide additional insights. Giant Voices has the capacity to do more such sessions because no travel is needed. In 2020, the agency conducted three times the strategy sessions annually than it had done prior to Covid.
“We were forced to do this, but we realized that it was awesome,” Apter says, adding that Giant Voices will continue offering vision sharing to clients in person and digitally.
Vision sharing’s remote technology also has helped connect Giant Voices with new business opportunities. “Many of the clients we have today are national clients that we might not otherwise have had an opportunity to work with,” agency president Lisa Bodine says.
The new frontier
Paul Miller, chief information officer for Minneapolis-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney, chuckles as he shares a workplace story. With most attorneys and staff working from home, Dorsey intensified its use of videoconferencing platforms during the height of the pandemic.
“This past summer, as a few people have trickled back into the office now and again, we’ve had requests to set up videoconferences in an office conference room,” Miller says. “We’ve noticed that people bring their laptops into the conference room, set them down on the table in front of them, log onto Zoom on their laptops—even though the video is being displayed on the conference room’s big-screen TV monitor.”
To Miller, it shows how behaviors have evolved “in the ways we do communication.” People developed habits while working remotely. The firm’s attorneys and staffers learned they often can be as efficient remotely as they are in the office.
Dorsey, like most law firms, has long used cloud-based, remote-accessible platforms for essential legal processes such as research and document sharing. During 2020, as most employees worked remotely, Dorsey ramped up its efforts to minimize the use of paper. For instance, staff now scan most paper documents that come to the mailroom, emailing those documents to the recipient. The firm is continuing to use that technology as people start returning to the office.
But will it be the same office? The way businesses and employees have learned to use and benefit from remote-accessible technology is making many employers take a fresh look at the workplace.
At its Denver office, Dorsey & Whitney is experimenting with “hoteling,” a reconfiguration of the office layout so that some people can choose not to have a permanent desk, Miller says. Instead, they can bring their laptops and use an app to pick an open desk to work at for the day.
This is one way the law firm is addressing the demand people have to work in a hybrid model while also being efficient from a cost structure perspective of the organization, he says. At the same time, he adds, “we’re provisioning a different set of technologies much more focused on mobile laptops instead of desktop computers.”
Dorsey’s plans for its return to the office are still evolving, he notes. “But there’s no question that we see that the future will be a hybrid workforce.”