(ITC CEO Jay Weintraub speaking at InsureTech Connect 2019.)
If the year 2020 is the worst of times in many respects, with regard to insurance innovation it has been the best of times. Insurers are proceeding with their core system and digital initiatives and the InsurTech movement is as dynamic as it’s ever been. However, these efforts are proceeding in part because they’re adaptable to remote work and communications. The same can’t be said for industry events where members of the insurance technology meet face-to-face. As COVID-19 cases have ticked up in the U.S. and other parts of the globe, Insurance Innovation Reporter reached out to InsureTech Connect (ITC) to discuss the organization’s plans for what has become the largest annual insurance technology event. Debuting in 2016 with 1,500 attendees and 60 exhibitors, last year ITC had 7,000 attendees from over 60 countries, as well as more than 200 exhibitors. The 2019 event had attendees from over 60 countries, executives from every top 10 life and P&C company, nine of 10 largest brokers, and eight of 10 of the largest global insurers.
So what is ITC doing to serve the community during a time when travel is restricted and the pandemic remains a threat? To find out, we spoke to ITC’s CEO Jay Weintraub, and the company’s new president, Mee-Jung Jang. Jang was formerly managing director of a seed stage fund, founder and CEO of her own startup, quant hedge fund analyst, corporate IP attorney, and published book author. Additionally she is a member of the Kauffman Fellows Program, a selective fellowship community for venture capitalists. Prior to joining ITC, Jang was the Managing Director of the MetLife Digital Accelerator, powered by Techstars.
Insurance Innovation Reporter: The question that everybody is asking is whether there will be a physical ITC show this year in Las Vegas.
Jay Weintraub, CEO, InsureTech Connect: Nothing would make us happier than to be back in Vegas with 8,000 of our closest friends in the InsurTech community, but the recent upticks in COVID-19 cases in the United States, as well as global and local government travel restrictions, has called into question the possibility of doing so safely and inclusively. Thus, while nothing would make us happier than an in-person event, given that enough people cannot and/or do not feel comfortable traveling, that means we would not be able to create the type of event expected of us for those who are able and/or willing to travel. As a result of our not being able to bring the world to Las Vegas, we are going to take ITC to the world, with our all-digital take on ITC Las Vegas… ITC Global.
We relish our role as the platform that unites the insurance world’s leaders and innovators, and our shift to digital first only increases those that we can bring together. ITC Global will take place on the same days that ITC Las Vegas was scheduled—September 21st through 23rd. We will once again bring the world together for an unprecedented two and a half days of learning and connecting – only virtually this time.
IIR: Mee Jung, once the threat of COVID-19 led to shelter-in-place rules, ITC must have immediately thought of the potential for the crisis to prevent the physical show from taking place. How did ITC initially react?
Mee-Jung Jang, President, InsureTech Connect: In early March, when shelter-in-place rules were coming into effect in more places, there was both so much uncertainty and so little information that we felt it both impossible and too early to make any specific determination. Our initial plan had us building three variations of ITC 2020—an in-person-only event, a digital-only event, and a hybrid event that looked to bridge the physical and digital.
Our top priority has always been the safety and well-being of our attendees and staff. It is and has been daunting to navigate the guidelines and restrictions of who can travel and when, to understand the often-shifting recommendations of how many can gather in one place, and more recently watching the dangerous numbers of new cases in new states. We will be honest and admit that it has been an emotional roller coaster.
Overall, we reacted very similar to most. We read everything possible, watched as many briefings as we could, and talked to as many experts and constituents as possible, all in an attempt to stay abreast of all relevant information so that we could make the best decision for our community. Luckily for us, our team was already a remote team so business in that respect was consistent. We have always made being nimble and able to adapt to new technology a priority. That mindset and skill set is certainly being put to the test as we figure out what it will take to create an all-digital version of something we never planned on being digital.
IIR: Jay, could you share with us some of the deliberation in making a decision about how to proceed with ITC while factoring in the implications of COVID-19?
JW: These are not easy times for anyone or any business owner, and we are certainly not immune. When this became very serious in March, we were fortunate enough that we had time to assess. We allowed ourselves time to see how the pandemic progressed, to see the recommendations from healthcare professionals and government officials. We talked to and researched what other event organizers were doing, and we created our own PPE supply chain.
While our business model and what people know us for is our annual, in-person event, we have tried to make sure that we don’t view ourselves as just as events company. By focusing on our role as a reflection and catalyst for the industry, we are able to ask ourselves, “How can we continue to serve this industry,” as opposed to, “How can we host an in-person event.”
We can’t stress enough the health and safety of our attendees is priority number one. And, it was that continued focus on our attendees that made it necessary and possible to make the decision to take ITC 2020 and turn it into a virtual event. Even after we made the decision to go digital first, we still held out hope that some form of in-person gathering could take place, even if the format was not the typical ITC event. But, as caseloads in the U.S. especially rise, it became clear that it just wasn’t going to be possible to bring together the ITC community safely in the way that they were used to, one that would allow the magic of ITC to happen. It has been among the more difficult decisions to make, but we stand by our decision and know, while difficult, it’s the best for the community right now given what information we have to work with.
IIR: Mee-Jung, ITC has become a much-anticipated event, the largest one of its kind in the industry, where industry participants look forward to meeting each other. How have attendees and partners reacted to the possibility of an in-person ITC not taking place?
M-JJ: Upon announcing the shift, many were, in fact, relieved that we made the hard decision for them—no choosing the health of themselves and their families over business needs or vice versa so they could attend. Now everyone can attend no matter where they live or what their local travel restrictions are. We are so thankful to have the best community and the opportunity to serve such amazing people. And, we feel so fortunate that our attendees, sponsors, and speakers are understanding and supportive of the decision to go digital first. We have promised to raise quite a few glasses during ITC Global in recognition that we cannot be together physically, but we are still together, united in how the movement of InsurTech is changing insurance.
IIR: Jay, are you finding, both from your interactions with industry participants and your observations of the industry, that this is a year where the importance of InsurTech and technological progress in general is not only undiminished but perhaps intensified?
JW: Absolutely! This pandemic has put more of a spotlight on the importance of the role of InsurTech in insurance. We’ve been so impressed by the creative innovation of InsurTech startups and by the accelerating adoption of new technologies by incumbent insurers. We certainly wouldn’t have predicted that in early March, but we continue to be inspired by the resiliency of the industry and the fact that many companies are doubling down on innovation and digitization not using the pandemic as a chance to slow down.
IIR: Mee Jung, ITC has become an international event anticipated globally. How did the international dimension of the event affect decision-making during the time of COVID-19?
M-JJ: The global nature of our event was one of the bigger factors in choosing to explore digital first. We asked ourselves, what would an ITC without our international constituents look like? Those traveling from outside of the U.S. have historically constituted upwards of 20 percent of our total attendance, but they contribute so much more than that when it comes to the feeling of ITC. It would have been hard for example, to imagine an ITC where we don’t see 200+ people from Brazil coming together for their annual ITC photo. We have always tried to put ourselves in our attendees’ shoes. If they would have to quarantine for two weeks upon entering their home country after returning from ITC, we could only imagine what that would mean for their personal and professional lives. As you can’t spell disadvantage without “advantage,” we have taken the shift to all-digital as an opportunity to make ITC even more global. And, we are doing so not just by creating three distinct streams within ITC Global—one for APAC, EMEA, and Americas—but also in our upcoming launch of the ITC World Tour.
IIR: Mee Jung, what are some of the key features of the digital/virtual event that will help to make it an engaging way to learn, collect vital information and interact with industry peers?
M-JJ: As was the case with our in-person event, we expect to be pleasantly surprised by both the outcomes of the shift to virtual and what is possible in a virtual environment. Take for example the 1:1 meetings, of which there were more than 10,000 last year. In the physical world, the meetings are naturally limited to those on-site. In the virtual world, though, a person can invite a team member, for example, an underwriter of a particular account to join for a very specific client meeting. It wouldn’t make sense for that underwriter to travel to Vegas for just one meeting, but in the digital world, it is both possible and the experience is seamless. The same is true for sessions. In the digital world, people tend to prefer a larger variety of formats, including a greater number of shorter-in-length sessions. Five-minute, quick hitting sessions, are no less valuable in an in-person event, but they are not as feasible or natural as they are in a digital world. Similar to the earliest days of ecommerce, no one has cracked the code on virtual events. We are approaching the shift to digital not too dissimilarly from how we approach our in-person event. It is a chance to push ourselves to be different and to advance what is possible; in this case, it just happens to be on an all-digital platform.
IIR: Jay, as great a challenge as COVID-19 is, it is a temporary one. How is ITC looking toward 2021 when we can once again enjoy meeting in person?
JW: Change is constant, and the insurance community is no stranger to having to adapt. Granted, no one expected so much change so quickly. And while it didn’t seem the case earlier, we emerge feeling more bullish than ever on bringing the community together—digitally and face to face. We are using this period of disruption and dislocation as permission to think even more outside the box, to challenge how we think of ourselves and our business. Future success for us will be determined not just by how we continue to serve the industry but by how well we took the learnings from this period and use them to make us better at what we do. For everyone’s sake, we look forward to a world without COVID constantly on everyone’s minds. And when that time comes, we know it will make for not just a better ITC but a better and more efficient industry.
We can’t wait to share ITC Global this September with everyone, and we look forward to “What happens in Vegas, doesn’t have to stay in Vegas” being once again the norm. Vegas or no Vegas, we will continue to bring together the whole insurance ecosystem and look forward to seeing progress becoming reality through new partnerships, which are more important now than ever before.