Nadia Cameron takes a look at the perception of virtual events today and how several organisers are striving to make this new events platform work for their businesses.
According to that wealth of subjective encyclopaedic knowledge, Wikipedia, the term ‘virtual trade show’ was first aired publicly in 1993 during a presentation by Visual Data Corporation’s Alan Saperstein and Randy Selman on their ‘ConventionView’ offering in New York. The product was based on recorded videos of trade show booths attached to HTML-based floor maps.
Although the concept met with a few years of success, the company closed down and disappeared off the radar before re-emerging in 2010 as Onstream Media with MarketPlace365, a virtual trade show platform promising lead generation, 365-day access to clients and endless SEO opportunities.
Perceptions of virtual events globally have experienced a similar wave of excitement, skepticism, neglect and renewed interest over the last decade or so. Several organisers such as UBM have now made virtual events part of their business strategy, integrating them into their overall offering.
Others however, remain unconvinced of the value of virtual events, fearing the implications of change. Confusion over the definition of a virtual event hasn’t helped mainstream acceptance of them either.
What should be made clear at the outset is that Onstream Media’s concept of replicating a physical trade show experience in a virtual environment is not the be all and end all of virtual events.
In fact, the term virtual events has evolved to cover a diverse range of complementary platforms and online engagement techniques. These stretch from search tools used on an exhibition show floor to virtual meetings between people in specially-built conference rooms in different geographies.
All of these approaches are designed to bring together people in instances where some or all of the attendees may not be in the same geographical location. And whatever shape or form a virtual event platform takes, it is always based on interaction and exchanging content or dialogue.
Emilie Barta is a virtual events industry consultant and has assisted a range of organisers globally. She believes virtual events will never replace face-to-face events but are instead a beneficial complement.
“Virtual events enable organisers to reach ‘the audience unable to attend’ their face-to-face events, provide education to a greater percentage of their members, reduce the carbon footprint, contain costs for their members, generate revenue for their organisation, build the next-generation community in a perpetual environment, provide member benefits, and engage their community,” she said.
“Consequently, virtual events also provide greater exposure of the organisation, the sponsors and the speakers to the members since the content can live online in perpetuity.”
Testing the waters
UBM Studios is a virtual events shop providing the technical platform and support services to the firm’s divisions such as UBM Live as well as third-party organisers. Vice-president of product development Michele McPhail told EN its virtual events portfolio ranges from pre-connect events like webcasts and live content streamed from a physical event through to post-show activities.
“People want rich media, global access and the ability to interact with each other,” McPhail claimed. As a result, UBM Studios has shied away from three-dimensional, immersive environments and virtual trade show booth babes and instead has focused on two-dimensional, cost-effective solutions that deliver content digitally, she said.
The division helps UBM to run more than 250 virtual events. These entail one or two-day seminars with complementary content not available at the physical show, to monthly events with one or multiple sponsors involving a webcast and virtual Q&A. Virtual events can also give their attendees real-time access to content and speakers on the show floor.
“It’s all about helping our customers of physical events extend that event’s reach,” McPhail said.
“It is hard to bracket events into specific categories, but we are starting to embark on analysis of the events we run by segmenting those for example with 250-2,000 attendees and six hours of programming over one day.
“What we have seen is dwell time and the average duration per presentation going up. I think that’s because people previously just threw together the content as an afterthought and weren’t focused on its quality. There has been huge advancement by organisers focusing more on the content to engage the audience.”
Rather than cannibalise traditional events, McPhail claimed UBM Studios had seen virtual events actually generate interest in their physical counterparts.
“People attending virtual events are more likely to attend next year’s physical event in their region,” she claimed. “By sharing information virtually, you help sell the value of the next physical event to them. Many will then attend a physical event or alternate between the physical event one year, then one virtual.”
To highlight the complementary nature of virtual events, McPhail pointed to UBM TechWeb’s business technology show Interop, which runs four times a year in different geographic locations and which launched two virtual events last year. The latter offered fresh content and ran at different times to the exhibitions.
“Every other month, Interop was touching the same users and people who went to the US version of the physical event but weren’t in Dubai for example, connecting them regularly with the brand while providing the ability to network internationally across the Interop community,” McPhail said.
“From a Q&A standpoint, they had a wider range of attendees and were getting more interaction.”
While it’s not surprising to see technology shows leading the way, other industry sectors successfully embracing virtual events are the medical, packaging, banking and property fields, she said.
One potential difference between an online audience and those at the physical show is their buying commitment, McPhail said.
Often, those who have committed to attending a physical show are right at the buying stage, while virtual events participants can be further away from taking that step.
“There are no glaring wins with virtual events but what I would say is they make it easier for people to take that first or next step with you,” she said. “What we’ve found is virtual events attract a good mix of high-level and low-level people.
“The other thing with virtual is you can track online what information they are accessing, follow conversations, see what materials they download, and in instances where you’re running an event on a particular subject but with five different speakers, see if someone has gone to all five and gauge their level of interest.”
UBM Live digital director John Welsh said his business committed to five years of investment into virtual events as a significant emerging communications channel, particularly as it builds out the global reach of exhibition brands.
As an example of its success to date, he pointed to its ATC Global exhibition for the air traffic controller industry, which held three virtual events in addition to its annual physical show last year.
“We had the same number of days face-to-face; what the virtual event was about was an additional day of interacting with our customers,” Welsh said.
“The threat isn’t there; virtual events are simply another part of the relationship with your community. What we want to do is to keep getting our customers in front of their customers. We already do this with conferences, awards and other networking events; virtual events are just another channel for that.”
Taking a hybrid approach
McPhail admitted the diverse nature of virtual events has made it difficult for many organisers to get their heads around the opportunities they present. Adding to the confusion is ‘hybrid events’, a term used to describe the blend of physical exhibitions and conferences with an online component.
“A virtual event is an event that occurs online and where 100 per cent of the audience is participating from their computer,” Barta explained. “A hybrid event is when a face-to-face event and a virtual event happen simultaneously to enable two audiences to participate as one. Part of the audience is participating from the venue and part of the audience is participating from their computer but all are participating in the same event no matter where they are located.”
Reed Travel Exhibitions (RTE) claims to have embraced the hybrid events concept and sees any activity online as a complement to its physical events and as serving an educational role. RTE portfolio director of meetings and events, Craig Moyes, said it is critically important for organisers to find new ways of making products and services more accessible to stakeholders on a continual basis throughout the year.
“This is a global industry and will remain so. Everybody is looking beyond his or her own shores and while we do not believe virtual exhibitions will ever take the place of live events, the use of online has become highly complementary and supportive of face-to-face,” Moyes said. “We believe the two should continue to be refined to be mutually beneficial.”
The rising cost of energy and increased demand to improve our carbon footprint is also influencing travel and consumer behaviours and inevitably changing perceptions of attending live events versus online ones. “Hybrid events are a means to easing this impact by creating dialogue with stakeholders remotely throughout the year,” Moyes said. “A further key element to the portfolio is education. Hybrid events such as online presentations, videos and webinars can be used to create and maintain a constant flow of information between RTE and its stakeholders.”
RTE highlighted a series of webinars staged alongside last year’s meetings and events industry show EIBTM 2011 to support the new Future Events Experience. The webinars were run by industry professionals on a range of topics including unstructured events and up-and-coming technology trends.
“These webinars enabled members of the industry to get involved in the trends and issues in the industry today and the future as well as contribute to what’s going on and listen to their colleagues,” Moyes said.
Given the rapid rate of technology innovation and change, RTE is committed to advancing events virtually as part of its broader exhibition offering. Moyes stressed the importance of ongoing education to ensure trade show visitors understand the benefits and overcome technological barriers.
“As an industry we must keep pace with new technologies and become ever-more adaptive to changing circumstances; standing still is not an option,” Moyes said. “One of the key challenges we face is ensuring that our stakeholders understand and utilise these hybrid events as much as possible.
“This requires a two-fold approach because the benefit of digital events not only depends on people knowing they exist, but more so that they understand ways in which these hybrid/virtual events can help them achieve their business objectives by complementing the face-to-face element of our shows.”
A note of caution
Haymarket Exhibitions is also investigating the virtual event concept, albeit more cautiously. To date the organiser has kept most of its physical and digital events standalone because they are perceived to be of more value that way to sponsors, conference director Alex Whitson said.
“Hybrid events help get more mileage out of your event content,” he claimed. “However, unless you have a clear path to monetise the content, it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be.
“Sponsors tend to buy into one or another. If you leverage a sizeable package from them for a physical event, then they typically see the virtual element as a nice–to-have, add-on and will not pay much extra to be involved with it, hence why we keep them separate.
“As for participants, there is still an issue in that while they are prepared to pay large sums for content in a face-to-face environment, it goes against behavioural patterns for them to do so online. I am constantly trying to break this down, particularly as the online medium can be a far more fertile learning environment, but it will take time.”
Haymarket continues to look at virtual events and has a few hybrid event projects in the pipeline.
“I feel many of those hybrid events in the marketplace are born more out of live event producers nervously attempting to embrace digital rather than commercial sense,” Whitson added. Barta agreed one of the biggest barriers to acceptance of virtual and hybrid events is how to plan, design and execute them.
“Face-to-face events, virtual events and hybrid events should all be considered within a 365-day event portfolio,” she explained. “Each type of event comes with its own benefits and challenges and should be used appropriately to the strategy, goals and objectives set forth by the event organiser and that which is best for the audience to derive benefit.
“Whether an event occurs in a physical space or online, it is still an event and needs to be treated as such. Education, resources, case studies and conversations about successful virtual events need to occur in order to provide the knowledge necessary to make them successful.”
Virtual and hybrid events are in their infancy and as a result, are still evolving. Two key areas of development identified by McPhail are extending virtual event platforms onto mobile devices, and expanding social media capabilities.
“We’ve always had virtual business cards, but all platforms are stepping up to help people better engage and share information,” she said. “For example, you can now do things like ‘crowd-sourcing’ and profile matching to better tailor content to your audience.”
Whatever approach organisers decide to take or their level of investment, the ultimate success of a virtual event comes down to that same mix of visitor recognition and interesting, engaging content and networking needed for a physical event.
So before you go virtual, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
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