How Kogod alum and entrepreneur Michael Bleau successfully pivoted his live events company during COVID-19.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses large and small were faced with a daunting challenge—adapt to the new normal or perish. Some companies changed their operations with only short-term survival in mind. Fashion houses and designers, like Christian Siriano, for example, started making masks. Whiskey producers “brewed” hand sanitizer. To-go cocktails kept the restaurant industry afloat and rose to the surface as a product here to stay. Airlines offered cargo-only flights.
A sector hit especially hard by the pandemic was the events industry. For the first time ever, some of the most famous festivals, tournaments, conventions, and trade shows shut down. While adaptability has long been a key to business survival, the pandemic forced event companies to wrestle with the unthinkable—what if there were no more events?
Michael Bleau (Kogod/BSBA ’07), co-founder and CEO of EventHub, was among the many business owners considering how to pivot their operations in the new locked-down environment. Thanks to the unique solutions EventHub provides and the entrepreneurial mindset of the team behind it, the company not only weathered the pandemic but found new customers, added new capabilities, and solidified its standing as an industry leader.
Bleau traces the spark that ignited his entrepreneurial fire back to his participation in the annual Kogod Case Competition. “That put the bug in me for entrepreneurial initiatives,” he says. “And then throughout my time at Kogod, I was able to do some things that opened my mindset. I did a study abroad program that really started opening me up to a global mindset versus just thinking very locally.”
EventHub was the first company that Bleau started, and while it was positioned to successfully navigate the pandemic that began last March, it didn’t start out that way. “It took a while to develop to the point where it is now,” Bleau explains.
The company began as a consulting and event production firm, but securing funding from investors through the Techstars Anywhere Accelerator allowed Bleau and his team to expand their technological capabilities and shift their focus from managing events to connecting event organizers and potential sponsors through an event management platform—a capability no one else in the events industry had yet developed.
“EventHub does a really nice job matching event sponsors with potential event opportunities,” he says. “There’s not really another platform that does a good job of it. That’s why we decided to start it.”
When the first hints of a full-scale global pandemic began appearing in February 2020, Bleau and his team knew they were going to need to pivot their business model. So how did they do it?
First, the company identified long-term trends created by the pandemic, namely the rise of remote work, social distancing, shorter supply chains, and the need for more robust technology. “We realized that all of our customers are live event organizers, and they were going to need to adapt and want to do some type of virtual version of their events in lieu of a live event,” Bleau says. “There are very few large, public event-type platforms, so that was our focus.”
Then, it extended its already-existing capabilities instead of abandoning what its reputation was built on, preventing confusion among its existing customers and offering valuable services to new ones. “In March, we started developing a virtual platform that could sit on top of our sponsorship platform that was very focused on consumer and public events versus business-to-business conferencing because there’s a ton of B2B conferencing out there,” Bleau explains. “We worked with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on their virtual event; we worked with food and wine festivals, county and state fairs. It really led us in some ways to get more on the map with these larger events because we were the only real, good-fit solution out there for these consumer-oriented events.”
Finally, EventHub pivoted as rapidly as possible. “One big lesson learned for us is that fast, aggressive pivots are possible as long as you have a clear, strategic vision and a path to getting there,” says Bleau. “Your team should feel like there is an executable plan that everyone can get behind. Think about what your company does differently and what is needed in the market.”
Responding to unforeseen challenges is a part of business, and pivoting may not always be the right strategy. But finding a balance between being reactive and adaptive and determining whether the pivot is an added value rather than a temporary fix may be the difference between a business weathering a storm or shuttering for good.