Virtual Trade Shows: A Realistic Alternative to Business Travel?

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Jan 01, 1753

Interest Increases Attendance

Unisfair, an organization that provides the technology for companiesthat host virtual shows, has seen interest in the shows increase at arapid pace over the last couple of years. According to VP of marketingBrent Arslaner, Unisfair worked on 125 events during its first 5 yearsin business. Last year, it worked on 150 and has done 250 this year."One reason companies have embraced them is the economy—the first thingthat gets cut [from a budget] is travel," says Arslaner. "It’s alower-cost alternative and it lets you reach a much larger audience."Another benefit, notes Arslaner, is that a reduction in travel canprovide a boost to organizational productivity.

For the companies testing the waters of virtual events, these arevery compelling reasons to try this format. Ann Handley, chief contentofficer for MarketingProfs, says that her organization has hosted twovirtual shows so far. "We saw the virtual conferences as a way to get alot of people in the same room without the travel and hotel expenses,"says Handley. About 5,000–6,000 people attended the shows, with halfattending at various times throughout the day. 

MarketingProfs offered the shows for free to attendees and held theshows from about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time to make it convenientfor both East and West Coast attendees. "Even though it was free, wewanted to give the highest quality content we could," says Handley.This meant that all of the typical, physical conference functions suchas speaker recruitment are still present. "From an organizer’sstandpoint, it’s just as much work," she adds.

Quest Software began investigating the use of virtual trade shows 2 years ago and conducted a pilot project in 2006. Its success inspired the company to host two Quest Connectconferences in October and November 2008. According to Eric Myers,director of internet marketing, 1,600 people attended each live, 2-hourfree event with more than 3,300 downloads of information (an average oftwo per attendee). Like MarketingProfs, Quest prerecorded itspresentations. Both companies worked with Unisfair.

Quest recognized the fact that the reduced travel budgets of todayprevent some prospects from attending physical shows. However, virtualshows actually enable Quest to present information in a way thatpotential customers seem to like. "We did a study with users and thoseusers want sales-free research, and when they’re ready [to make adecision], they’ll make that happen," says Myers. The virtual showsallow Quest to effectively provide information about their products andservices in a comprehensive yet unthreatening way.

The Exhibit Hall Still Stands

If you’ve never attended a virtual show, you may wonder exactly what it looks like on your computer screen and how the speakers actually present their knowledge in the virtual world. Can the physical trade show experience truly be replicated online? If attendees can drop in when it’s convenient, are these presentations live and featured in real time? The answer is sometimes.

Arslaner explains that sessions can be presented on demand, live, or "simulive," which, he adds, is the most common. Simulive enables a speaker to make his or her presentation as many times as it takes to create an error-free performance. Those taped presentations are typically preceded by live Q&A sessions. Unisfair provides clients with an event manager and a producer who will help run the event. 

The virtual event itself mirrors the traditional trade show in that it has its own version of such venues as a conference hall and a main hall. Virtual attendees can also connect with other attendees in a virtual networking lounge. Arslaner explains that attendees can search a list to find people with similar interests and then reach out to them via their computers. "Virtual is more efficient in finding people," says Arslaner. "It’s difficult to find the people you are looking for at a physical show. The virtual can be much more intelligent." It enables people to more efficiently communicate with others, in a similar way that social networks do.

"We find that the way people interact is that they are very straightforward," notes Arslaner. For instance, if they want pricing information, they will just ask. "In the virtual sense, people are very specific," says Arslaner. "It can create a more transparent way to interact." If an attendee wants to connect with someone who isn’t available at that moment, he or she can send an email to that individual and follow up after the event, adds Arslaner.

Vendors can purchase virtual booths where staff members are available to answer attendees’ questions, and attendees can obtain product information without feeling the sales pressure that oftentimes exists during a face-to-face booth visit. "It removes the inhibitors for both attendees and exhibitors," says Nigel Clear, commercial director of conferences for global publishing giant Elsevier. 

Will the Two Worlds Collide?

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

Elisa Camahort Page, founder and chief operating officer of BlogHer (acommunity for women bloggers), says she hosted a virtual conference in2007 and 2008 in tandem with the group’s physical conference. "Wecreate a separate amount of programming," explains Camahort Page.Attendees to the virtual side of the 2008 show had access tostreamed-in content, including the keynote speech. "We thought, ‘Howcan we reach more people and make them feel more included?’" AddsCamahort Page, "We’re committed to providing content and a place forpeople to participate and interact." 

For those in the conference busi-ness, those continue to be the maingoals of such initiatives. Elsevier wants to build such an environmentfor its customers and is currently developing a virtual event modelthat it has begun to show customers to gain their opinions. Still,Clear agrees that "the idea of a stand-alone virtual show—we’re notthere yet. The physical show will be the premium product." Meetingattendees and exhibitors at a virtual event is still not the same asshaking someone’s hand, Clear adds. 

Clear notes how the dissemination of information is perhaps one ofthe most important goals of any trade show and that virtual shows areone way to ensure that the largest audience possible receives thatinformation. "For every one person who can attend a show [in person],there are 10 who can’t," adds Clear. Virtual conferences can helpengage 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 isaimed at those who don’t go to [traditional] conferences. It’s aboutoffering them something they don’t have."

Virtual shows can also ensure that attendees retain the informationpresented to them well after the show ends. One benefit virtual showhosts enjoy is the fact that once the show closes, attendees cancontinue to "visit." For Quest, that means keeping presentationsarchived on the company’s site for 6 months, at which point a new showwill likely replace that content.

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

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