Tech Giants: Heka Health’s Tony Salah on Turnkey Wellness Challenges for Events and 365 Community Engagement

January 14, 2022

If you asked Tony Salah what he was most passionate about when he started his career, business and technology would have topped the list, considering his degree in electrical engineering along with an MBA from Harvard. Fast forward several years when a family health issue arose, and he suddenly became laser-focused on the inefficiencies within the healthcare system and wellness as tool to prevent illness.

“It became deeply meaningful to me and ignited my passion to combine my technology and business background with the health and wellness space,” Salah said. “I saw so much need and so many ways to make a really positive impact.”

In 2015, he founded Heka Health, a Silicon Valley-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that provides custom-branded, turnkey health and wellness solutions for companies, non-profits, associations and other entities. To date, one of the company’s fastest-growing segments has been conferences, trade shows and other events, where unique, rewarding and engaging wellness challenges align the interests of all stakeholders, including organizers, attendees and sponsors.

The programs can include step competitions and other wellness activities such as meditation and yoga, CSR elements and prize giveaways to gamify the experience for attendees, while giving sponsors a powerful way to market themselves.

We sat down with Salah to find out how Heka Health stepped into the events industry and started blazing new trails, why wellness challenges make rewarding engagement tools for everyone involved, and how they can help build and sustain community year-round.   

How did Heka Health get into the events industry, and why is it such as an ideal fit for wellness challenges?

Our first customer was the American Diabetes Association, which wanted to do a walking challenge for their scientific sessions event. I had a connection there, and AstraZeneca became the sponsor. I didn't know much about the events industry, but it was perfectly aligned with what we were trying to do—leverage our technology and satisfy this quest for wellness while supporting the objectives of everyone involved. The events industry was a sweet spot because they have this long-standing relationship with their community and wanted to support their desire for wellness. They just needed the tools, which we could provide. They are looking at ways to engage and support their communities, as well as sustainable models to increase sponsorship revenue. Meanwhile, sponsors really want to support people’s wellness and find new ways to engage them with more experiential marketing initiatives, so the wellness challenge is a rewarding win-win for all constituents.

Can you give us an overview of Heka Health’s wellness challenge options and benefits?

We create custom-designed turnkey challenges for in-person, virtual and hybrid events. There are several wellness activities for the mind, body and soul that can be incorporated, such as walking, marathons, yoga, meditation, social connection, gratitude journals, social media posting and more. Participants earn wellness points for completing the activities. The activity data integrates with Fitbit, Garmin, Apple Watch, Google Fit and Apple Health, and we can also provide custom-branded trackers. The programs include a custom-branded app, leaderboard and promotions. We gamify the challenges to boost engagement among attendees and sponsors by offering prizes for winners and drawings for certain categories. We also provide challenge results and a summary analysis at the end of the program.

What are some of your most successful wellness challenge programs at events?

In November, we did IMEX America 2021 in Las Vegas again with Maritz Global Events, our strategic partner that designed the overall challenge and was a co-sponsor along with Caesars Entertainment. Collectively, challenge participants accumulated more than six million steps and engaged in more than 900 different bonus wellbeing activities, including the popular Social Connect feature, IMEXRun, 15-minute meditation sessions, a gratitude journal and donating to ECPAT, an industry cause to fight human trafficking. Caesars gave away daily step goal prizes such as tickets to the LINQ High Roller and LINQ Zipline. Another great success story was the  2020 Rotary Virtual Convention Challenge. Highlights included 4,000-plus participants from more than 150 countries, more than 115 million cumulative steps/wellness points, more than 7,000 bonus activity engagements and 19,000 daily challenge emails with an average 50% open rate. Lastly, for PCMA Convening Leaders 2022, held Jan. 9-12 at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, we partnered with Maritz Global Events as well, and the challenge was great, with a lot of high engagement levels for participants and with the sponsor, Destination Vancouver. We had more than 200 registrants who completed more than 4.6 million steps and engaged in nearly 500 bonus wellness activities, including Destination Vancouver well-being videos, which were embedded on the challenge app, and meditation, yoga, massage and other experiences at the Destination Vancouver Well-Being Lounge.  

How can wellness challenges help build and sustain community?

Wellness doesn’t have to be a one-time thing that you only use at your annual event. If you're really going to create community, you should be supportive throughout the year. It’s not only engaging the end user, but it also has the sponsors supporting year-long initiatives. A perfect example is a two-year program we have with the School Nutrition Association that initially stemmed from a wellness challenge at their event. They now do quarterly challenges with their community that have had thousands of participants because it’s so engaging. The sponsor is Jennie-O, which is focused on healthy food products. It’s been very successful. You start to lose people’s attention after one event, so this is a way you can keep them engaged and thinking about their health and wellness throughout the year.  

How did you pivot during the pandemic, and what were some of the trends you saw as a result of the pandemic?

For our event customers, obviously there was a big move to more virtual and hybrid programs. (Although our platform was always set up for virtual and hybrid challenges, most of our event customers only had focused on in-person challenges before the pandemic). This has also led to more and more of our event customers looking to engage and support their community throughout the year and have their sponsorship opportunities spread out across the year (instead of having the majority of their sponsorship dollars focused on just a few events per year). In terms of the trends, the pandemic has driven an even bigger focus on wellness overall and a more holistic view that includes not only exercise-focused activities but engagements that support mental health and social connections.

How do you see wellness challenges for events and 365 engagement evolving in the coming years?

In terms of the near term future, we see these overall wellness and well-being trends continuing, with our customers also looking to support an even broader range of wellness and well-being that can include areas such as environmental and financial well-being. Integration of personalized coaching and new technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality are definitely on the short-term horizon as well.

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