Conference Interpreting Businesses under Lockdowns

Covid-19 had a powerful effect on the conference interpretation business. I interviewed three CEOs of conference interpreting businesses to highlight how they adapted to the new game of multilingual online events.

David Utrilla

CEO, US Translation
Location: Salt Lake City, United States
Profile: 26 years on the market, main business in translation Interpreting sales pre-covid: $3 million
Adaptation: Launched own RSI platform for language service providers (LSPs) and buyers, InterpretCloud

How did you adapt to the lockdowns?

Just before the pandemic, I acquired, an interpreting equipment rental company. ABBN was very profitable and had strong relationships with LSPs and direct clients. Even before we acquired them, we provided equipment for technology, pharma, nutritional, therapeutic, and skin care industry events here in Salt Lake City and everywhere across the U.S., including conferences on cruise ships. And then Covid-19 came. When it hit, we lost 70% revenue overnight and had to adjust. 

In May 2020 we launched our own RSI solution called InterpretCloud. It was fully rolled out by September, with the addition of captioning services. With InterpretCloud we did more events in 2020, but less in sales, because the average budget for an online event in the US is only $4,000 versus $40,000 for an onsite one. You can picture the rest. However, the run rate is picking up fast and our inbound requests are increasing quickly.

How did lockdowns affect your interpreters?

For interpreters, the switch to online meant that they went from a several days’ commitment per event to a few hours. Business-minded interpreters with good connections have done really well; they have probably doubled their income if not more.

What’s your forecast for the coming year?

We expect that 50% of events will return onsite after Covid-19 – as soon as the restrictions are lifted. When that happens the equipment rental part of our business will bounce back and add to online services. 2021 should be a better year for us — we’re planning to triple RSI and captioning revenue — and 2022 will be even better.

Mario Junior

CEO, AP Portugal
Location: Porto, Portugal
Profile: Top-5 translation and interpreting firm in Portugal created by a conference interpreter
Interpreting sales pre-covid: $0.6 million
Adaptation: Launched a service line and tech for online events

How did you adjust to the lockdowns?

When Covid-19 came, we had to adjust and provide remote interpretation and virtual event management services. For this purpose, we partnered up with software companies – Zoom, Interprefy and Interactio. I position the company as a tech language consultant: ready to assist our clients in selecting the platform and technical support. RSI accounts for 35-40% in our services portfolio now and in early 2020 RSI amounted to exactly 0% — we had the solutions but there was no demand for it.

The number of events we had in 2020 is the same as in the previous year, but they are much shorter. Revenue decreased by 16%, which is a pretty good result for such a challenging year.

The burst of online events brought new opportunities too. We launched a service to build websites with live multilingual streaming for conferences and events. Also, we are not limited by geography anymore — and we pitch to clients worldwide. My focus for the next year is to expand our presence abroad.

What is your vision for the future?

As for our outlook for the future: I believe that offline events will re-emerge eventually and we will have both online and offline events, 50/50.  Also, I see the rise in hybrid events.

Kevin McQuirer

President, Atlas Language Services
Location: Chicago, United States
Profile: LSP, 20 years on the market interpreting sales pre-covid: $5 million
Adaptation: Zoom + partnership with major RSI providers

How did the lockdowns affect you?

The interpreting community was hit hard by Covid-19. 2020 was simply horrible for conference interpretation, and the legal sector in the US was also drastically hit.

Pre-Covid, 70-80% of our annual sales were conference-based. So in 2020, we dropped and in the second quarter of 2020 we were down by 78%.

I’m seeing a slight increase now in spring 2021, which is a good sign. In parallel, translation business increased, which significantly helped us to weather the storm.

What about RSI — did you see growth in this sector?

Pre-covid it was hard to sell. Clients saw neither the value, nor the opportunity presented.  RSI started to pick up in June 2020, but it has been slow. The reasons for that are as follows:

Zoom has an interpretation feature, but it has many downsides.

Major RSI platforms’ pricing is very high.

Lack of integration into video conferencing systems (Zoom/Teams/Hangouts) on the part of many RSI players.

By now, of course, RSI has ballooned, and I have seen a significant increase there. Segments activated by RSI are government/NGOs/associations/education. However, the education sector is limited for major RSI platforms due to the high cost. 

I believe that there is room for even more growth. In my opinion, many governments have been getting by during this last year with hopes of returning to the old normal sooner or later.  But there will be those who see this as an opportunity to revamp their systems completely. By offering RSI and increasing that use, they can decrease the cost of language support, not by reduced interpreters’ fees, but by reduced auxiliary expenses being travel, hotel, per diems, etc.

There is an excellent opportunity in the corporate sector as well. Too many corporations do not utilize this amazing tool to speak to their global team members as they should. English may work for a vast majority of their international employees, but they are missing a huge opportunity to build employee loyalty and support by providing this service.  We are seeing more and more international board meetings being held virtually via RSI, which is a great sign.

Zoom’s interpretation feature is weak. It works to a degree, and it is cost-effective and has brought much awareness to our industry, however, it can be exceedingly difficult to work with in a professional scenario with bi-directional interpretation. The more languages that are added, the more that challenge increases.

What is your outlook for the future?

In my opinion, RSI is here with us to stay. Post-Covid I expect the hybrid approach to be stronger than ever.  People crave people and experiences, virtual events do an okay job of filling that void, but onsite will still have its draw and I believe by offering a true hybrid experience, you open your audience doors tremendously.