Virtual Trade Shows: A Realistic Alternative to Business Travel?

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Will the Two Worlds Collide?

Although virtual shows can provide an equally robust experience in terms of content, many conference planners say that they don’t expect virtual shows to replace traditional physical events or even cannibalize the physical shows. Instead, they feel both formats can coexist and actually complement one another. Some are even hosting virtual shows in tandem with physical events.

Elisa Camahort Page, founder and chief operating officer of BlogHer (a community for women bloggers), says she hosted a virtual conference in 2007 and 2008 in tandem with the group’s physical conference. "We create a separate amount of programming," explains Camahort Page. Attendees to the virtual side of the 2008 show had access to streamed-in content, including the keynote speech. "We thought, ‘How can we reach more people and make them feel more included?’" Adds Camahort Page, "We’re committed to providing content and a place for people to participate and interact." 

For those in the conference business, those continue to be the main goals of such initiatives. Elsevier wants to build such an environment for its customers and is currently developing a virtual event model that it has begun to show customers to gain their opinions. Still, Clear agrees that "the idea of a stand-alone virtual show—we’re not there yet. The physical show will be the premium product." Meeting attendees and exhibitors at a virtual event is still not the same as shaking someone’s hand, Clear adds. 

Clear notes how the dissemination of information is perhaps one of the most important goals of any trade show and that virtual shows are one way to ensure that the largest audience possible receives that information. "For every one person who can attend a show [in person], there are 10 who can’t," adds Clear. Virtual conferences can help engage the segment of attendees that companies such as Elsevier would otherwise not be able to serve. "People will still pay to go to conferences," predicts Clear. "This is aimed at those who don’t go to [traditional] conferences. It’s about offering them something they don’t have."

Virtual shows can also ensure that attendees retain the information presented to them well after the show ends. One benefit virtual show hosts enjoy is the fact that once the show closes, attendees can continue to "visit." For Quest, that means keeping presentations archived on the company’s site for 6 months, at which point a new show will likely replace that content.

This can be a strong selling point for conference planners who are trying to attract vendors to their virtual exhibit halls. "From a sponsorship perspective, they can maintain a permanent presence," notes Clear. It can be an inexpensive venture for vendors that can yield very qualified leads, since only interested attendees would likely click on a vendor’s offering to learn more. Clear adds that his goal would be to have sponsors cover the cost of virtual shows. 

A Virtual Future

What exactly does the future hold for virtual shows? Those who have hosted such shows say they have plans to continue to build out this part of their business. Handley says MarketingProfs has two live events and two virtual events on the schedule for 2009, including the B2B 2.0 EXPO slated for March. "We’re definitely going to hold more of them and develop that part of the business," says Handley. Camahort Page and Myers say they will continue to host virtual shows as well.

Yet Ramos wonders if attendee enthusiasm will continue as more conference planners begin to take notice of this medium as a viable option. "Virtual trade shows are now a novelty," she says. "Once that novelty wears off, will we find that we still pay attention to the virtual?" She notes how the ability to attend virtual events on the spur of the moment could make them enticing to attendees. But on the other hand, will attendees pay attention to the content if they didn’t first have to pay attention to the details of attending a physical show that required them to make a commitment to pack a suitcase and leave the office? Time will certainly tell if attendees will be as committed to virtual events as many organizations are to further developing this format.

Interestingly, to continue the growth of the medium, organizations need to concentrate on the same areas that enable traditional physical shows to grow. To make virtual shows a continued success, companies must pay attention to the details, adds Ramos, such as the content, the execution of the show, and participation of the right exhibitors. 

However, some aspects unique to a virtual show also require close attention. "You have to have security and server space," notes Camahort Page. You also have to have an understanding of your audience, and if they will truly accept the medium, adds Handley. At this point, it seems as if the benefits of virtual shows outweigh the drawbacks for many companies. If there is a time for companies to expand their virtual offerings, now appears to be it.

"If just on the green benefits and the cost savings, the time is right to experiment," says Ramos. Adds Camahort Page, "You need to allocate resources to this part of your conference; it will cost you money and resources." 

Elsevier plans to continue researching and experimenting with the virtual conference world. "It’s something we believe in," says Clear. "We’re doing this in a measured and controlled way. But my personal belief is that this will be a large part of our business and our conference business. Our growth is centered around the physical conference and introducing the virtual conference."

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