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Welcome is throwing its hat into the virtual events ring today, further evidence that the global pandemic may leave an indelible mark on the trillion-dollar business event and conference market.

Welcome emerges from stealth after just seven months in development and three months testing with beta customers. Welcome CEO and cofounder Roberto Ortiz said the company aims to allow anyone to “throw an experience that feels like an Apple keynote.”

“We saw that there was a big gap in the market, especially looking at high-end events, high-end experiences, and high-end production,” Ortiz told VentureBeat.

In the run-up to its public launch, Welcome has secured $12 million in funding from notable investors that include Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Kapor Capital, and WIN (Webb Investor Network).

The likes of Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and other companies with endless resources may find the transition to online events relatively painless — but for those without sufficient expertise, technology, or budget, trying to replicate quality physical events virtually is no easy task. This year has consequently been monumental for virtual events startups, with social distancing measures and remote work forcing some of the world’s biggest conferences to embrace livestreams and other virtual alternatives.

Last week, London-based virtual events company Hopin raised $125 million at a $2.1 billion valuation, just over a year after it was founded. Hopin has also grown from eight employees and 5,000 users to 200 employees and 3.5 million users during the eight-month pandemic period. Mountain View, California-based Run The World raised two rounds of funding this year, including a $10.8 million series A round in the midst of the global lockdown. And India’s Airmeet closed its seed round in March, followed by a $12 million series A round not long after.

In a crowded field, Welcome is betting big on the enterprise market. Rather than charging on a per-event or attendee basis, Welcome wants annual contracts, with companies committing to its platform and using it for everything. And it isn’t chasing the big conferences that only happen once a year — what it wants is frequency.

“We believe that’s fool’s gold — you have to reacquire that event every year,” Ortiz said. “When we build a relationship with the enterprise customer, they get to use us for all their all-hands-on every week, for their board meetings, for their sales events. For us, it’s about getting the frequency and adding value week to week to that customer.”

Welcome to Welcome

As with other virtual event platforms, Welcome positions itself as a virtual venue, meaning it strives to replicate the spaces you would expect in a physical venue. There are breakout rooms, for example, and a “green room” where speakers can congregate before going on.

Above: A Welcome Green Room

Welcome also allows users to mix live and prerecorded video and to create graphical overlays with additional information or include audience questions. Next year, it plans to introduce what Ortiz calls “dynamic overlays” that will allow companies to generate text and colors in real time, without needing to upload any graphics.

Above: Welcome: Overlays

Welcome is also positioning itself as a white label platform, with companies able to customize branding, colors, backdrops, logos, and so on. And plans are afoot to introduce custom domains so customers can host Welcome-powered events on their own online properties.

Beyond this feature set, Welcome wants to be seen as an HD video broadcast studio, backed by white-glove support. As part of its annual contract, it provides companies with the training to run impactful events. Welcome hopes successful events will translate to word-of-mouth recommendations from participants.

“Our key marketing channel is our customer events,” Ortiz said. “If our customers know how to host next-level experiences that blow everybody away, then that’s going to be our sales pipeline.”

Rapid pivot

Things would have been much different for Welcome if the pandemic hadn’t struck. The company was technically founded last year, but with an entirely different focus on an entirely different industry — restaurant software. The Welcome team went through a Y Combinator program, but come March it was clear a change was in order.

“We had to pivot — we either pivot or we die,” Ortiz said. “So we sat down and went back to the drawing board, and we turned a complete 180 to events.”

Welcome’s story is similar to that of Hubilo, an events startup that pivoted its entire business model from brick-and-mortar to virtual events in March and then went on to nab some notable investors.

Also like Hubilo, Welcome’s founding team had years of relevant experience to draw on, making the pivot a little easier.

Ortiz has served in numerous roles over the past decade, including as product design lead at Google. He also cofounded a fantasy sports startup called Bignoggins Productions, which he and Welcome cofounder Jerry Shen sold to Yahoo in 2013. As a result, Ortiz became senior director of mobile design at Yahoo for three years. Sandwiched between all of this, Ortiz was involved in a personal “passion project” called Eleo, which involved putting on high-production meetups and conferences in the Bay Area to teach entrepreneurs key skills. Although this was not a profit-making venture (all proceeds were donated to charity), it set the stage for his current venture.

“We got first-hand experience on [things like] ‘How do we handle speakers?’ ‘How do we handle stage?’ ‘How do we make sure the branding is on point and the user experience is there?'” Ortiz said.

This strong technical and product background, combined with experience putting on events, was invaluable when it came time for Welcome to pivot back in April.

“We doubled down and we spent three months basically in a cave working on this thing,” Ortiz said.

A hybrid world

With several coronavirus vaccines on the horizon, much of the world will be eagerly awaiting a return to normality. This could mean people gathering in large venues to discuss work as early as next year. But many across the tech and VC world believe that even when physical events do return, their digital counterparts aren’t going anywhere.

“Our customers are seeing more growth by going virtual,” Ortiz said. “One customer of ours typically hosts one event at 500 people. She went virtual, and now she has 2,500 participants. So now she’s growing her demographic much more broadly than a physical event would allow. [When things go back to normal], she says it’s going to be a 100% hybrid approach — this is what we keep hearing from event industry leaders.”

There is already solid evidence that hybrid events will be big in 2021. Just this week, news emerged that Reuters would be adopting a hybrid events model next year. The publisher plans to combine local networking meetups with online incarnations after it saw some success with a virtual model during the pandemic.

Beyond expanded reach, digital events offer more and better data. In a physical venue, it becomes difficult to track what an individual does or how engaged they are. It’s also tough to quantify desired outcomes, such as a new connection or sale. Now that more companies have tried virtual events, giving up that measurability will be difficult.

“Instead of thinking about this from a physical-first experience and saying, ‘This is how events work in the physical world, how do we do them in a virtual world?’ we flipped it and said ‘How do we do things in the virtual world that it’s impossible to in the physical world?” Ortiz said.

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