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Virtual Tradeshows – Are They For Real?

Virtual Tradeshows – Are They For Real? – When internet-based tradeshows were first discussed about 9 years ago, it was a victim of poor timing and a false-start. The Internet-mania clouded the thinking of technology providers. It was impossible for legitimate potential users of virtual tradeshows to sift through the hype and select elements that made most sense to their individual needs. The events industry witnessed companies in the United States and Europe, backed by the promise of big funding and cumbersome technologies try to get the attention of an internet-fatigued audience. The result was a quick retreat by potential customers who did not know how best to harness the tools offered. Like electricity, the Internet can be a great servant, but a bad master. Over time there have been select groups of users who have carefully selected tools and approaches that worked for them, to create a growing industry for virtual venues. There are (were) even dedicated newsletters such as ConferZone (the last time I checked they were changing hands) that focus on web-conferencing as a business activity. The hype is over. There are no gimmicks anymore. These modern virtual event venues mean business. Business users take them seriously.

Changing environment

One has to look at the environment in which children are being raised, how they are being entertained, educated, and the toys they get to play with, to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, and how they will change in future. Then one can draw a parallel with the world of business. Here are 10 factors that have changed in the business world in the past decade:

Wired society: The new workforce coming right out of schools and colleges grew up on new methods of communication. Text messaging comes naturally to that demographic. A more wired society means that people bring those habits to the workplace as well.
Redefining the “commute to work”: Corporations now routinely use tools for online collaboration amongst remote teams. Some team-members have worked on the same project for years and never met one another. Working out of a home-office with a cat meowing in the background is no longer considered unprofessional. I actually had a business call get abruptly disconnected, and when my customer called me back I was told that the cat jumped on the phone unexpectedly. It’s called ‘work-life balance’.
The eBayment of business: The internet has pervaded most aspects of daily life. The concept of store-fronts going virtual, of multi-million dollar businesses being run out of a log cabin in Colorado are not unheard of. The ability and confidence in being able to find and reach out to a marketplace without travel is very commonplace. I had the opportunity to visit a convention of eBay users in New Orleans a few years back. The ancillary services that are springing around the tools of eBay are testimony to the fact that the business world has changed dramatically. In our own case, we rarely meet our customers face to face. When we do the bonds are further solidified
Time-zone? What’s that?: Time zones have blurred, especially working with global teams and transatlantic customers. Humans are turning into nocturnal creatures depending on the markets they serve. I know of a company in Cupertino, CA that has teams, one of which starts work at 5 a.m. to serve East Coast customers in the USA, and then takes a break from 3 p.m. to 12 midnight, and then another team that works from 12 midnight to attend to the Asian market. I am not sure how they announce their office hours. We recently worked with a company in Israel, and they didn’t work Fridays and Saturdays. We did a tradeshow online for a government organization in Dubai, and they didn’t work Thursdays and Fridays.
The English may have left, but English did not: A recent news item seemed very relevant to virtual tradeshows. President Jacques Chirac of France stormed out of a European Union summit this month to protest the use of the English language for a speech by Mr. Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, of Europe’s employers federation UNICE. When his choice of language was questioned, Mr. Seilliere replied “I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of business.” This incident is interesting because a mere 50 years after the English gave up their colonies, the English language seems to be gaining ground as the language of business. Multi-lingual populations will enjoy distinct advantages in a global economy. From the standpoint of the Internet it is a valuable development. It helps connect the world faster. A virtual tradefair has its best application when it connects faraway places and users. Once the barrier of language is removed, it is only a matter of time before the floodgates of commerce open. We are starting to see new versions of English and written communication brought about by the limitations of text-messaging and twitter.
Personalized experiences: I heard recently on NPR a story about how the process of purchasing jeans will become so personalized that children of the near future will laugh at how their parents shopped for clothes in physical stores. The internet makes that possible. In a virtual tradeshow, one can customize the views enjoyed by users based on their roles, cultures, locations or preferences of the producers or user-preferences. When a tradeshow is catering to audiences across political, geographical and cultural borders, such levels of personalization allow us to cater to the individual needs of a variety of users rather effortlessly. They called it mass customization in the NPR program for mass production of clothes tailored to fit individuals. Similarly, virtual tradeshows allow for mass personalization of experiences for a broad spectrum of users.
Blind date redefined: Online dating services, in just a few years have lost their stigma to become part of mainstream matchmaking in personal lives. While it requires a major adjustment to ones’ sixth sense in developing trust through online matchmaking, it also helped to have as a catalyst a variety of factors to enhance the trust-building process – referral methods, background checks, fees to keep out dabblers, and a variety of opt-in features that allow users to build credibility even though they have not met in person. It is only a matter of time before these concepts of matchmaking enter the world of business. You may have heard the phrase “ping me” in business usage lately to convey “get in touch with me” – could be via phone, email, instant messaging or video web-conferencing. Read further to see how making online connections are becoming part of business behavior.
Networking means working the Net: Last month I attended an in-person media conference in New York, and upon my return found an email waiting in my in-box from another entrepreneur that I met there, carrying an invitation to a social/business networking group called Linked-In. Business users and professionals are increasingly tapping the power of the Internet for career progression, business development or just simply connecting with like-minded professionals. Interesting applications like Ryze and Linked-In are a testimony to the fact that business professionals will not wait till the next industry-event to meet professional peers. They may have already made their connections via the Internet, but will look forward to the next industry event to meet them in person. Event owners who combine a blend of these various channels to network – both online and in-person will get the loyalty of these changed human behavioral patterns.
The Wall Comes Down!: The phenomenon of giving more power to the users through more powerful handheld gadgets, wireless and broadband connections means that few boundaries remain intact. We regularly get inquiries for virtual tradeshows from potential exhibitors as far away as Asia and South America looking for a way to reach out to American buyers to showcase their products and services. Gone are the days when you wait for the telex machine to spring to life with an inquiry from a foreign customer. Businesses in Asia are hungry for growth, hungry to reach out to the western world. The internet provides them with the ability to do so.
“Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been”: Sounds clich├ęd, but the reality is that I see owners of portals who have no prior tradeshow brands, come up with virtual tradeshows and succeed at them. The technology is easy to rent from providers who offer time-tested processes. Software-as-a-service is the new phrase to describe such offerings. Grassroots movements from online communities will dominate the virtual tradeshow markets, and shake traditional tradeshow organizers out of their comfort zones. Since 2005, we have witnessed marketing dollars shift away from in-person tradeshows to online marketing. It is like giving your teenagers a cellular phone – try taking it away from them. Tradeshow producers need to positions themselves to a spot where tradeshows are headed. They need to get proactive, not reactive.
Primary reasons why virtual tradeshows are here to stay
There are 3 primary reasons why virtual tradeshows did not go away, are here to stay, and will only grow and morph into highly interactive experiences, as well as improved cross-over experiences combining online and in-person experiences.

1) Virtual tradeshows save big bucks: Virtual tradeshows literally make accountants smile! They save a ton of money for users. Even at the current level of adoption, they generate average aggregate savings of $2 million per event.
2) Virtual tradeshows give greater brand for your buck: The net helps casting the net wider. We do tradeshows where exhibitors and attendees come from as far away as Finland, United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, the Netherlands, India, China, Taiwan, France, Germany, all over the United States. I call it giving them ‘greater brand for their buck’.
3) Virtual tradeshows take you right where the buck stops: They give direct access to decision makers, cut through bureaucratic layers in organizations,

Other compelling benefits of virtual fairs:

What virtual tradeshows also do is give structure to the information overload that the world of business is plummeting into
Every action in a virtual fair can be tracked, reports are transparent and ROI’s easily calculated
They mirror and adapt to business-users’ behaviors, and
They provide continuity and complement every form of in-person contact – adjusting to differences in time-zones and cultures.
The current state of Virtual Trade Fairs, Job Fairs, Consumer Fairs and others …
Here are some of our observations in working in the realm of virtual environments for publishers, exhibitors, producers, attendees, show managers, and as producers ourselves.

There is a high level of interest and often whole-hearted acceptance from corporations that are seeking to get ‘greater brand for their buck’.
We see a tremendous surge of interest in virtual tradefairs from publishers who look at it as a new media property to be harnessed – an extra offering they can take to their advertisers.
We are seeing traditional tradeshow producers still a little hesitant about crossover shows. Part of the reason may be, not knowing where to begin. The virtual tradefair, as an application is as complex or as simple as you choose to make it.
Many tradeshow producers are testing the waters using virtual conferences. We just saw someone offer a preview online of what to expect at an in-person event.
We see tremendous interest and value derived by international exhibitors and attendees. Time zones don’t seem to matter anymore.
Services from publicly owned companies like Microsoft Live Meeting (formerly Placeware) and Webex, through their marketing campaigns have helped tremendously in increasing acceptance of web conferences as a part of business usage and continuing education. Have you heard of the phrase “Let me webex you”? That kind of branding is helping virtual fairs become mainstream. We often hear of virtual tradeshows being referred to as ‘itradefair’, as in “when is your next itradefair?”
We see job fairs and recruitment processes changing their formats with the inclusion of virtual job fairs.
Publishers and owners of multiple media properties are devising interesting and innovative marketing programs by bundling offerings of virtual fairs with selling space in print publications, other online properties, and in-person events.
Last, but not the least, there is no room for gimmicks. It is not just about technology. You can throw only so much technology at users. It has to make sense from a business perspective, and from the perspective of bringing efficiency to current processes. ROI’s do matter and the transparency makes it measurable.
The future of virtual fairs
Here are a few observations as we gaze into the crystal ball to understand the future of virtual fairs.

From a technology perspective, virtual fairs as they exist now will change dramatically as new technologies free up users from being grounded or desk-bound to access the Internet. They will get more entertaining as newer technologies emerge and corporate network administrators become comfortable with allowing users richer online experiences through firewalls.
From a business perspective, we foresee that the future direction of virtual tradeshows will be driven by the needs of top sponsors rather than from tradeshow producers. It is very likely that grassroots activity in vertical niches may complement in-person tradeshow activity if the existing tradeshow producers don’t shift their positions and cover the area of virtual tradeshow as well.
We also foresee that virtual fairs will become part of mainstream business activity. It will enter budget line items. Already, for many of our corporate customers, it is not so much a question anymore, of is a virtual fair worth doing? It is a question of can they risk not doing a virtual fair.
We are also testing the limits and experimenting boldly in the tradeshows that we produce and own ourselves. It gives us the creative freedom to bring out better services and products in the market. We are pushing the envelope with giving greater freedom to online exhibitors to pursue their own marketing agendas within the framework of our own virtual fairs – the Internet makes that possible.
We see a definite trend in tradeshow producers allowing virtual event service providers to offer services directly to their exhibitor base, much like an audio-visual provider at a convention center would sell directly to an exhibitor under a prior arrangement with the producer.
We also see another interesting development – we have companies and individuals approaching us with the offer of creating ancillary assistance services such as “we can build virtual booths for your exhibitors” who don’t want to use the self-help tools, or who don’t want to be bothered with technologies that they may use only once in a while. That is another indication that virtual trade fairs are becoming a mainstream business activity.
We foresee the growth of large international virtual tradeshows.
Social media and virtual tradeshows will determine the quality of the face-to-face interactions at in-person events.
It’s just a matter of time – virtual fairs are here to stay.

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