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Lucas McCarthy, Showpass Founder and CEO
Lucas McCarthy, Showpass Founder and CEO

Seizing opportunity: How Showpass pivoted in response to an industry on the brink of collapse

At first, events with more than 250 people were cancelled. A few days later, that number was lowered to 200. Then it was 50. Then 15.

“That was when we got into the headspace that this was not going to be a temporary thing,” says Lucas McCarthy, founder and CEO of Calgary-based event and ticketing technology platform Showpass.

For a company with a mission to bring people together, the restrictions on social gatherings due to COVID-19 were a literal showstopper. After shutting down ongoing events, cancelling future ones, and refunding customers, McCarthy started wondering what the future would look like for not only Showpass, but the live events industry. “We needed to figure something out,” he says, “because this business model will not work if you can only hang out with 50 people.”

The opportunity

The immediate aftermath of the cancelling of live events exposed how unscrupulously the ticketing industry was operating. “Many of these companies were using their customers' ticket funds as operating lines,” explains McCarthy, “and that’s just scary.”

With dozens of ticketing firms shuttering practically overnight, McCarthy saw the opportunity. “The biggest challenge in ticketing is that contracts last 3-5 years. You need to wait until these contracts expire just to compete. With COVID, contracts are becoming null and void and being broken left, right, and centre.”

McCarthy first looked into acquisitions, but quickly realized these company’s reputations and relationships were so badly tarnished, “...they weren’t even worth a fraction of what we would have paid a week prior,” he explains.  

For McCarthy, the solution was clear. “It’s going to be far easier for us to compete for those contracts long term.”

Surviving the gap

To compete in the long-term, McCarthy knows Showpass needs to survive the short term. “We said to ourselves, ‘We’re not going to make any money. Our revenue has dropped 99.9 per cent. How do we survive this?’”

Bolstered by an unwavering trust in Showpass’s engineering capabilities, McCarthy and his team convened to identify the interim opportunities they wanted to pursue. “Our engineering talent is, bar none, the best in the country, if not North America,” says McCarthy. “We had some crazy ideas.”

One idea was to resurrect Showpass’s original business model of event-queue management and repurpose it for grocery stores. Another was to take a stab at food delivery.

What the team decided to pursue, however, was something outside their core business, but complementary to it. It is also a product McCarthy hopes will continue post-COVID.

The birth of Sessions

“We started thinking about what it’s going to look like when we go back to ’normal’ and these event venues start re-opening,” says McCarthy. “If we can bridge the gap between now, when venues are closed, and when they will be fully open by figuring out how they can make money at 20, 30, 50 per cent capacity, that would be incredibly valuable for not only our clientele, but all our competitors' clientele as well."

After two-weeks and more than 3,500 hours of development, the Showpass team delivered a new product called Sessions. Sessions is a video platform that allows performers, celebrities, experts and influencers to create and deliver a virtual event or performance. Fans are offered the choice of limited seat experiences, or public experiences that bring together large groups of people from all over the world. By offering talent a platform to perform to paying audiences, Sessions is providing a tangible replacement to the in-person experience. Once venues start to reopen, Sessions will be able to provide additional revenue opportunities, like exclusive meet and greets or private performances, to help make up for the loss in revenue due to the limited capacity at venues.

In addition to Sessions, Showpass launched a live event series in partnership with hotels called Staycation. “With Staycation, people can actually attend a live event from the balcony of a hotel with the stage on a pool deck," says McCarthy. "We're planning on streaming these shows and pairing them with Sessions to help bring the live music industry back to life.”

Lessons learned

“As a CEO, this experience has been super difficult,” shares McCarthy. “Usually you have time to plan, to explain, to debate. But in this situation, you don’t.”

To help navigate the storm, McCarthy, who participated in Cohort 2 of the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program, relied on the lessons he learned in the program around strategic planning. “This has been a really interesting opportunity to take those lessons from the ScaleUp Program to our team and rebuild them again. We have the time to take a step back, do the strategic planning, get our goals in order, and create KPIs. That’s what we really took away from the ScaleUp Program, having that strategic planning and the depth to be able to make it adaptable to a situation like this.”

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