Virtual Trade Shows: A Realistic Alternative to Business Travel?

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Interest Increases Attendance

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

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

MarketingProfs offered the shows for free to attendees and held the shows from about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time to make it convenient for both East and West Coast attendees. "Even though it was free, we wanted to give the highest quality content we could," says Handley. This meant that all of the typical, physical conference functions such as speaker recruitment are still present. "From an organizer’s standpoint, 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 Connect conferences in October and November 2008. According to Eric Myers, director of internet marketing, 1,600 people attended each live, 2-hour free event with more than 3,300 downloads of information (an average of two per attendee). Like MarketingProfs, Quest prerecorded its presentations. Both companies worked with Unisfair.

Quest recognized the fact that the reduced travel budgets of today prevent some prospects from attending physical shows. However, virtual shows actually enable Quest to present information in a way that potential customers seem to like. "We did a study with users and those users want sales-free research, and when they’re ready [to make a decision], they’ll make that happen," says Myers. The virtual shows allow Quest to effectively provide information about their products and services 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.

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