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Alex Abell says addition of food is reversing downward trend of virtual event attendance

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Connecting people over food, drink, and shared social experiences has always been core to the mission that drives Knoxville’s Alex Abell, and he’s doubled down on that vision for 2022.

As described in this December 2019 article in teknovation.biz, the Georgia native conceived the idea for Lunchpool in November 2018, just one day before a “Techstars Startup Weekend” event that was held in Tampa. The idea was simple but powerful: connecting coworkers who don’t know each other over lunch to build awareness and camaraderie.

“We started trying to connect people in the workplace who were becoming increasingly siloed and isolated,” Abell explained in a recent interview. He quoted a statistic from the American Psychological Association (one of Lunchpool’s event clients, he noted), “The Impact of loneliness on mortality is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

He relocated to Knoxville in mid-2019 after his wife accepted a tenure-track position in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Then, when COVID-19 hit in early 2020 and people were looking for ways to stay connected in a virtual world, Abell adapted his business model to enable larger, virtual events.

Alex Abell

“We experienced a lot of success, grew our team, and became a real company,” he said of the experience. However, since June 2021, he’s noticed a decline in attendance at virtual events on all platforms, not just the ones that Lunchpool regularly uses. He noted that people are “both ‘zoomed out and increasingly picky with how they spend their screen time.”

“I looked back at the events in Knoxville that were most successful,” Abell said, citing a happy hour for the Knoxville Technology Council and several for groups like the United Way of Greater Knoxville. All involved the magic of food.

“There’s no replacement for an in-person event, especially one with free food,” he remarked. “That said, sometimes taking your event virtual is the best option. That’s when people hire us to make the virtual experience truly invigorating and connective.”

Now, one might say he’s combining the best of options – the connective experience that Lunchpool offers and the emerging food delivery network across the country and beyond that has emerged as a result of the pandemic.

“Imagine a company of 500 employees, all coming together in a virtual space that looks like a real cafeteria,” Abell says of the emerging refinement to his core concept. “Right before they login, we deliver a meal to their home and they log in to sit around virtual ‘tables’ with their peers.”

He added, “It could be viewed as catering option for an organization whose networking events have gone from in-person to entirely virtual. Or a virtual cafeteria for an organization to regularly connect its remote employees with those working in-office.”

Utilizing Lunchpool and its network of partners, a client – Dell is one – can establish a dollar amount for each delivered meal. Attendees then select from a menu that would include pizza, salads, burgers and even alcohol for a happy hour.

“They choose their preferences, and we surprise them with a delicious meal, always giving preference to local restaurants where the participants are located,” Abell says. Lunchpool also formed a new partnership with Grubhub, expanding options for clients that prefer to give their guests the power to pick exactly what they want.

Lunchpool’s events are hosted primarily on the Remo platform, and the former recently did an event for the latter where 90 participants from around the world received pizza delivered to them during the virtual meetup. Remo Chief Executive Officer Hoyin Cheung remarked of the event, “While it is easy to last-minute change your mind and not attend a webinar that you signed up for 1.5 months ago, the same is not true when you have a pizza delivered to your doorstep.”

The new offering with food also enables Lunchpool to focus on its original clientele – corporate business-to-business customers focused on improving metrics like employee retention, engagement and mental health. Abell says the addition of food is resulting in greater attendance at Lunchpool-supported events.

In his own words, “You can put together the best event in the world, but if nobody tunes in, it’s a flop. For the events we’ve hosted with food, 90 to 95 percent of those who register are actually showing up”

In true Abell fashion, he ended the interview with an insightful quote. This time from Guy Fieri, “Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people eat together.”

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