Named in BWM’s list of 20 most innovative companies to watch, 2020. OpenExchange is the premier provider of video meeting, conference, and streaming solutions for financial services & investor communications. Here’s their story so far.

Sometimes, innovation doesn’t yield patented inventions or miracle cures – it simply comes from having the right ingredients in place, with the creativity and pioneering spirit of a tightly knit team, as well as the appropriate ingredients to address a sudden, disruptive sea change. 

That was the situation that OpenExchange CEO Mark Loehr faced at the end of January, 2020, when he got a call from the Asia-Pacific headquarters of one of the world’s largest financial institutions.  In light of the emergence of a novel coronavirus, a travel ban between the United States and China had just been announced, and one of the bank’s most important events of the year — its China investor conference scheduled to be held in just two weeks’ time — had been suddenly and shockingly upended. This situation offered OpenExchange a tremendous challenge and, at the same time, a big opportunity. 

Meetings that Matter 

Over the course of the prior decade, OpenExchange had earned its stripes by facilitating the most critical one-on-one and small group video meetings among public companies, professional investors, and investment bankers – what the company calls “Meetings That Matter.”  The company had cracked the code on interconnecting previously incompatible video conferencing systems and created a team of specially-trained video specialists who were fluent both in video technology and finance.

While the volume of these virtual meetings had steadily grown through 2019, meetings were generally scheduled as ad-hoc “one-offs”, and not on a coordinated schedule.  Supporting virtual conferences would involve managing agendas of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of closely packed small meetings in a single day— each meeting needing the same level of care and technical creativity previously applied to individual meetings. 

But facilitating the investor conference during an emerging pandemic would present a daunting challenge. Loehr sensed that there would be dozens of similar calls to come in the days ahead as COVID-19’s effects settled in.  Investor conferences are the lifeblood of the relationship among companies, investors, and banks, and in the face of the pandemic, the kinds of real-time information exchanged at these conferences would be more vital than ever.

Vision and Knowledge 

Barely three months earlier, OpenExchange had acquired KnowledgeVision, an award-winning streaming video company whose technology it had licensed for four years.  Loehr knew that KnowledgeVision’s livecasting and video showcases could provide a perfect complement to its hands-on video meeting approach, offering a unique and complete virtual conference solution: a new product offering, OE Conference, was created from scratch in just fourteen days.

The February China conference was highly successful, and that success led to more than a dozen conferences in March, nearly a hundred in the second quarter, and more than 200 more in the second half of the year.  One big reason for the growth – the economics of virtual conferences are compelling.  A virtual conference typically costs about 60% less than it does to host as a physical conference, but organizers report increases in attendance of as much as 30 to 50 percent.  

“We watched the pandemic unfold geographically in our business around the globe, from Asia in late January to Italy in February, and it was upon all our US clients by mid-March,” observed Loehr.  By the second week in September, OpenExchange was facilitating more meetings in a single day than it handled in all of 2019.

Evolving in the face of adversity

With this transformation came an explosion in staffing.  OpenExchange entered the year with fewer than 30 employees.  By September, the team had cracked 1,000 — the majority of whom would be client-facing.

Recruiting and training a global staff — none of whom could be face-to-face with each other because of pandemic restrictions — required its own set of innovations.  OpenExchange pressed its own video platform into service to conduct recruiting interviews and train new specialists in complex procedures.  Delivery team leaders instituted a system of apprenticeship to train new team members in real-life situations.  They held mock conferences to simulate the kinds of challenges they might face. A rigid evaluation system quickly identified top performers for advanced training for handling more complex meetings and interactions.

OpenExchange’s technology had to evolve rapidly as well.  The Knovio video streaming platform it acquired with KnowledgeVision now handles hundreds of simultaneous live streams and hundreds of thousands of simultaneous viewers.  Every one of more than 100,000 video endpoints tested by OpenExchange can be configured as a source for live streams and panels.  

“It’s now almost as if we have 100,000 remote studios all over the world,” says Chief Content Officer Michael Kolowich, who founded KnowledgeVision.

Interactive video showcases provide a branded virtual home base for conferences, and the company is now beta-testing a new portal for issuing personalized single-click virtual conference schedules for attendees and presenters.  New studio installations in Boston, London, and Hong Kong are lending broadcast-quality production values to keynote tracks, plenary conference sessions and analyst panels, as well as other special events like global company meetings.

The results are eye-popping.  OpenExchange is on track to handle nearly 50 times as many meetings in 2020 than it facilitated in 2019.  Since February, it will have hosted more than 360 virtual conferences during the year, including events for nine of the ten largest independent global banks, as well as several major stock exchanges. 

“I like this virtual event better than the in person experience,” said a Founding Partner and Research Head of a global investment management firm after attending an OpenExchange-managed conference.  “Don’t need to fly anywhere; don’t need to run from room to room and can wear my cooking trousers.”

Beyond conferences, OpenExchange has seen a similar increase in its non-conference meetings as well.  It will have handled over ten thousand analyst briefings, IPO roadshows, CEO roundtables, board meetings, and other high-stakes meetings for financial services and corporate clients by the end of 2020.

This trend reflects an increasing comfort of senior executives with video as a communications medium, as well as an increased confidence that video conference technology can be made to work securely and reliably, regardless of the technical barriers to bridging incompatible systems and corporate firewalls.

Mark Loehr is circumspect about OpenExchange’s sudden success.  “I think you can’t really be disruptive unless you’ve gotten a head start,” he said.  “If you’re prepared, you’ll have the resources to take advantage of an opportunity at any moment and be willing to scale at the same time.”

Loehr realizes that continued innovation will be demanded of a now-expanded OpenExchange team as an entire investor communications ecosystem struggles to find the elusive “new normal.”

“Nobody is anxious to get back to the office,” Loehr says.  “Portfolio managers I talk to are beginning to realize that back-to-work is never going to be the same.  They’re never going to travel as much again.”

As a result, OpenExchange is preparing for a world that is part virtual and part hybrid with virtual and physical conferences. This will demand a creative bridge between virtual and physical attendees, as well as both virtual and physical presenters.

In this new normal, OpenExchange will play a key role as a trusted advisor. “What they’re asking us for is advice about how to navigate an often-confusing new world of virtual options,” notes Loehr.  “That’s going to demand that we continue to innovate toward that hybrid physical/virtual world in a way that preserves both the superior economics and broader reach that these conferences and meeting programs are experiencing.”

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