Hilary Laney, owner, and CEO at Seattle-based Evia Events is an event technology leader with a real passion for bringing people together. Evia Events is primarily focused on enabling businesses and organizations to connect to their audiences by sharing their content on digital platforms. With over 14 years’ experience in the event technology industry, Laney has a wealth of expertise in both event management and leadership.
Evia Events was founded in 1993 as Tri-Digital by her father Mark Monrean, Roger Swearingen and Jeffrey Fessler - with the mission to capture the market around digital media content on CD-ROMs that could be used in presentations and documents. Laney talked to us about the journey from watching the company grow, to becoming owner and CEO.
“My dad started Evia in 1993. I started working with him when I was about 24. I grew up having it literally in our basement and then as they grew and they moved into a new office, I spent a lot of time there as well. It's just in my blood. As we started growing and hiring people, and really stepping outside of just building technologies, my dad said; ‘okay, if you want to run that part of things and manage people, that would be great.’ Slowly but surely over time, it's done well, and I love it. I absolutely love it. My favorite part is working with my team and challenging them and helping them grow.”
The route into the family business did take some diversions along the way, as Laney achieved a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of Washington and started her own career. Keen to work for a non-profit organization, Laney’s first job was at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Her time there reinforced her determination that her career would be centered around philanthropic work. All of that changed on one road-trip she took with her dad.
“My dad's business started to take a shift because the technology was changing, and everything was going online. They needed to expand, he needed help. I remember it so clearly - at the time they were doing DVD releases of the content for events. We had to drive down south where his replicator was to get a DVD mastered. On that road trip, we have this conversation about me potentially coming and helping him out because things were changing. We agreed we would just give it six months and see how it goes. I'm here 16 years, 17 years later, I realized that ultimately if I could own the business and take it over and then do with the business, what I want to do in the philanthropic world, like use the success of my company that ultimately when that switch went off in my head, I can make a much bigger impact doing that than just working in the nonprofit space.”
Taking on her father’s company as her own has meant that Laney’s day-to-day has had to change and evolve over time as Evia grew. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the events industry particularly hard, and aside from being hands-on in the operational side of the business Laney says that leading the team and looking for opportunities has been especially important.
“I view it as my role to keep my team motivated and to encourage them to continue to challenge themselves, grow outside their comfort zones and learn new skill sets to drive things forward. All of us are being challenged in new ways and having to do new things. I've found that it is my role every day to wake up with a positive mindset. On the strategic side making sure that the decisions we're making today set us up for whatever is happening in the future. I really, I love every aspect of it. I am a people person and so the ability to interact with my team on a regular basis and be challenged by them like that. I really thrive on that.”
The passion for people and enjoying interacting with her team on a daily basis has allowed Laney to transfer her ‘natural tendency’ to want to listen to those around her and work collaboratively. She is quick to credit her team for making this process easier, saying that while they all have ‘different voices’ as a team Evia are customer-centric and understand how key that is to the business.
“People talk about it all the time. Like hiring people who are smarter than you. It is so true. Getting people who have all these different skill sets and different ways of looking at not just business, but life in general, I think is important. They're all giving what they think and you take all that in and say ‘okay, now based on everything, I just heard what's the best way to move forward’ Sometimes there isn't time for that. I get that, but, that’s how I approach leadership.”
Evia Events have provided event technology for a wide variety of corporate clients including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, and Tableau. They have enjoyed a long particularly long relationship with Microsoft. As one of their first corporate customers Laney describes the moment, they won the contract to bring Microsoft's training program online as ‘a huge, huge win for us’. The multi-million-dollar contract was the catalyst for Evia’s ongoing success, and collaboration and patience around issues as they arise have been a vital part of that story.
“Servicing a company like Microsoft, their expectations are incredibly high. Failure can be an option, in technology that happens, but you better damn well know what caused it and how you're going to fix it and how long it's going to take and what cost implication there is and all of those things. And it has been incredible because Microsoft is extremely patient with that. I have had a lot of failures with them over the years and there's nothing worse than that go live date for an event and the technology fails and that's it, like that was your chance. So, you really have to come into that conversation with honesty and a positive attitude about how you're going to improve it for next time.”
Looking forward to the future of the event technology space in what has been called the ‘new normal’, Laney is optimistic about the opportunities for Evia to leverage its position in the virtual event space. While this is tinged with a certain sadness around the events that have led to so many events moving to the online space they are perfectly placed to provide help, advice, and services to businesses adapting to a new way of working.
“For many years of providing that virtual experience it's been challenging to prove the value and to show why it's a positive thing to have this available for events. It really does help to make the whole experience more accessible, which then leads to more engagement, more people paying attention, bigger conversations, all those things. There is nothing better than being on site and in a keynote room and all those amazing things. But there are people who just cannot do that and still need access to the content or to understand what's unfolded during that event experience, and so I see it as an opportunity to really change that culture. I've already seen it start to happen in the last couple of months where people have been forced to embrace it in a new way and what I hope happens.”
With the whole event industry moving online overnight, Evia have seen a huge influx of inquiries for their virtual event services. Their typical service is focused on a custom approach for each brand and event, usually offering online elements which compliment an in-person event. With demand through the roof Laney says they have looked to ‘pivot from that hybrid experience into all virtual’ and is keen to point out that these hybrid events will likely become the norm.
Planning virtual events has quickly become mainstream for both personal and professional interactions. We asked Laney what tips she had for businesses as they transition to hosting their events online.
“Strategy is really critical. Everyone's mind goes to the technology immediately, and I would caution people to jump to that too quickly. I think of course, exploring those options to generate ideas and, and be thinking about what is out there is good. But before you decide about that, you have to know who your audience is and how they need to access your event. Where are they located? What's their age group, generally? Asking yourself all those questions about the audience and what your goals are with that before you make any decisions about the technology. Our team has been spending a lot of time with people on the phone over the past couple of months, asking those questions and getting a good understanding before they move forward with us. We want to make sure that what we provide helps them meet those goals.”
Being one of the pioneers in the virtual event space in the Pacific Northwest, and a family business, Evia has had to constantly find new ways to adapt and grow within that space. While many businesses look to bring in investors to facilitate growth Laney says that the idea of keeping the business in the family is important to her vision for Evia. While the event space has evolved over time taking careful strategic moves has allowed them to maintain steady, organic growth.
“I'm a firm believer in the way that I run my business, I don't want to have any external influence on that. We have got values about our business that are really important to us that I'm just not willing to compromise for the sake of the bottom line. Up until recently we were primarily services based. It was a straightforward problem to solve because you know, as we scale up on the services and the revenue grows, so does our team. In the product space, which we have moved, leaned in on a lot more in this new environment, it's just different.”
Facing these challenges as a company owner with a clear vision and mission for the brand has not always been easy for Laney. Her collaborative nature has led her to taking an executive coach onto the team at Evia, who she describes as ‘just incredible’, and her father is still on hand to provide advice and support when needed. She also makes fond references to her ‘network of partners and business owners’ who she is able to share stories and ideas with.
One of Laney’s big ideas for Evia is to ensure that the company gives back to the community, working with smaller businesses and non-profit organizations to help them reach their audiences. Recognizing that her company and team is a part of the community and has certain responsibilities drives many of the day-to-day leadership decisions Laney makes. Following the lead of some big-name brands such as Nike, Evia recently announced that ‘Juneteenth’ would be a company holiday for all employees.
“The way that we run our company is all about the people and that human experience. Of course, it's important to succeed and be profitable, then we're all human beings. We are all coming to work every day to do this, how do we make that environment as positive as possible? That's everything from the way we communicate with one another to the way that we interact with our partners and our customers, the policies that we put in place, the way we hire, the way we promote. We've been talking over the past couple of weeks, I've seen some other larger businesses make that step of deciding to make Juneteenth an actual holiday.”
“We always have those conversations about us as a business and how are we showing up in this time of stress and injustice and all of that, and how do we speak about it? In the end, we always end up making this bold move. Of course, part of it being, what we're doing as a business, but then also how does that impact the community around us and how does that help other people feel supported and then even a step further from that. I also like to say, ‘we're doing this, you should do it too.’ If you have any hesitation, I'm here to tell you that it's possible. We have 20 people full time on my team, and it doesn't take much, it's just commitment and being in the right mindset and making it a priority.”
We asked Laney if she could go back in time and give her 21-year-old self some advice, what would it be?
“I could take what I know today and like put it in my brain back then I think I would have moved faster. I'm the person that holds me back the most in my life. I have been very fortunate in the sense that my family, my community, my friends have always been extremely supportive of me. And so, I'm kind of my own worst enemy. In hindsight, if I could speed some of these bigger things up a little bit and do them at an earlier time, it probably would have helped a little bit.”
Looking to the future, Evia are growing fast and are always on the lookout for new talent and are currently hiring. In 2019 they were gender equity certified by Gender Equity Now, reflecting the hard work that the team has done to make sure that the whole hiring process from applications to interviews is as fair and transparent as possible.
“We have a blind what's called a blind application process, so we had to kind of take some additional steps to make this happen. The hiring team, when they are looking at resumes, they don't know if they're a man or a woman, like they don't have visibility into the names or any of that stuff. Anything that would basically give away their nationality or their gender or anything. I am proud of this work and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it plays out. I'm sure there'll be bumps in the road cause it's the first time doing it but I'm really excited to see the outcome and, you know, who we end up hiring in the end because of it.”
You can find out more about Evia Events here: https://www.evia.events/