Big interview: ACTIVE Network’s JR Sherman

JR Sherman, Senior Vice-President of San Diego-based ACTIVE Network’s Business Solutions Group (BSG), is on the 2012 Business Travel News list of the ’25 Most Influential Executives’.

Under Sherman’s leadership, the BSG has been trailblazing its suite of event management solutions as a one-stop solution for organisations of any size to power smart events.

StarCite and its venue booking systems are now integral to the ACTIVE smart suite, following its acquisition in December 2011 for a reported US$51.8m.

With other automated booking systems, including those from Cvent making big transatlantic waves for the European market, JR Sherman is not shy in outlining his brand of entrepreneurial event management evangelism.

There is certainly an aura of the Alpha entrepreneur about JR Sherman, albeit this JR is more statistician than Hagman stetson.

Sherman’s initial forays into business, he says, came at Carroll School of Management, Boston College. Clearly he never experienced problems attending college meetings, leaving with degrees in finance and accounting, later adding a degree in music.

Not only did he study business, but immediately he practised it. “I had to raise money for our lacrosse team in Freshman year, so we rented a bar and put on events.

“We kept the cover charge, and the owner sold a lot of liquor. I then reached out to nightclubs and bars in the Boston area that had trouble filling on certain evenings.”

Thus began a business finding bands from colleges and filling venues. “An arrangement that helped pay for school,” says Sherman.

He admits, however, there was no definite career plan at that point. “I  was initially just filling a gap. You could also call it my first experience driving meetings. I found out how you draw people to see something and put on a good face-to-face experience.”

So, what was the first paid job?

“I did internships with Exxon Chemical, GE Capital and the town’s finance department,” he says. “I realised I was, at my core, an entrepreneurial person and felt more comfortable building something rather than joining a large company.”

His next move was to join up with a friend leaving IBM to create an outsourcing company for demand generation events. They started a business centred on the high tech industry.

“It was a time of lay offs, when sales forces were only servicing the top five per cent of accounts, and not touching tier two,” Sherman remembers.

“We created tools for showcases, seminars, and turnkey events, creating content and brand. We targeted the audience, calling and mailing people to sign up to attend.

“The business took off tremendously in the ‘90s and in 1998 we sold to Caribiner International, acquired, in turn, in 2000.”

Things began to tie together despite the occasional frustration. “We had been running programmes all over world and had reached frustration level with leads being wasted. We needed to provide clear data on leads to justify our client’s spend.”

Sherman started his Channel 1 company (subsequently sold to ACTIVE in a deal that brought him to the company). “Its purpose was to capture lead info on site and track the attendee journey. We were interested in the sessions delegates went to, who they spoke to and collected all this in an automated fashion. Early CRM systems really.”

Sherman says he started to “glue together” the attendee journey, “the early stages of what we’re achieving now at ACTIVE, that is putting pieces together in a single system”.

By 2009, Sherman says it was a great opportunity to take what he had built and “snap it into what ACTIVE had built” on the pre-event registration side.

The ongoing dream, he says, was of creating the entire attendee profile.

Why did ACTIVE acquire StarCite?

“I had sold my company to ACTIVE in the heart of recession, when I was putting together turnkey solutions for the marketing event world. I saw how people were consuming social networks instead of advertising.

“At same time, meetings and events were the first things to be cut when times got tough. This industry, I felt, didn’t do a good job of justifying investments to our clients. The question was how to tie this together.

“We found we were only touching one piece of the overall meetings spend, and that’s how we saw the world of Strategic Meetings Management (SMM) and StarCite.”

ACTIVE was the award winning platform for marketing events with Cisco. At the same time, StarCite was the award winning SMM platform for Cisco. Yet, Sherman, says the companies “never once ran into each other”.

“They were procurement driven and we were marketing driven. But, if we were to prove the value of a handshake and raise the value of meetings and events, we needed to break down the wall between procurement and marketing.”

Breaking down the walls of perceived value of meetings is clearly something he is engaged in. Sherman says research from the Aberdeen Group shows that only 25 per cent of organisations have real-time insight into their meetings and events across their entire event portfolio.

“Historically, organisers were able to make do with multiple point solutions that had little to no integration to manage the various aspects of their events. But after the corporate cutbacks of the 2008 recession, executives started demanding more responsible spending, more cost savings and the metrics to clearly measure how events were driving engagement and revenue.

“We see Strategic Meetings Management as the new frontier in event technology. Just as we’ve seen automation improve efficiency of marketing, sales and human resource departments, organisations can expect SMM technology to uncover new ways to reduce and streamline event spend, transforming meetings and events from cost centres to revenue drivers for businesses.”
What advice does he have for people/companies wanting to be bought out?

“It is critical that you are passionate about your industry, business and what you’re doing to see it evolve. It is obvious to the acquirer. Honesty and integrity is critical.

“Second, be organised. The amount of distraction if you are not organised can be detrimental to all concerned.

“Third, it’s important to be connected and be out in the industry and known. And, if you think it’s time to sell your business you’ve probably waited too long. People want to pick something up that’s really on the rise.”

Sherman says to expect more announcements about innovations to the user experience. He says it took a year after acquisition to create the new umbrella of ‘Smart events’. “We’re now helping clients drive smart events.”

To the charge, often levelled at the old StarCite product well known on the UK agency market, that it was expensive and inflexible, Sherman says spend can now be tracked in a single space, leading to the leveraging of better deals.

“The UK and Europe have been a strong focus for the BSG for the last 3-5 years. Now that we’ve integrated our suite of technology platforms, we are able to scale and meet the needs of a wider range of customers.” The Smart Events platform, Sherman adds, provides a “global platform helps EMEA clients leverage the best of breed solutions”.

Sherman also believes in attracting and retaining passionate leaders with industry knowledge, such as Izania Downie (ex-CEO of Eventia in the UK). “Extremely important too are our partnerships with market-leading associations like Eventia in Europe and Professional Convention Management Association in the US. All our partnerships are about bringing the best of breed technology to enable Smart Events, and collectively improving the meeting and event experience at every level. It’s about us co-creating the future of this industry  together.”

This was first published in the February edition of CN. Any comments? Email sarah@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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