In our ever-changing world of technology, a new vehicle has arrived – the Virtual Trade Show.
A formal definition of a Virtual Trade show might be: An entire convention center full of people, products, and informational materials made available to participants via their computers and the web.
A simpler version would be: The Home Shopping Network® for Business.
For the first time in history, convention participants no longer have to physically travel to a convention center, battle traffic and smog, pay for parking, stand in registration lines, and scurry to food stands and rest rooms. Instead, they can sit at their computers tour the show, print out desirable material, request written quotations, and place orders from the comfort of their cubicle.
It all sounds very chic but does this signal the end of the meetings business and trade shows, as we know it?
Definitely not! It’s simply an exciting adjunct to existing trade shows– not a replacement.
But, be wary – to ignore progress is to invite disaster.
Trade shows exist, to make it convenient for a targeted customer base to get lots of information about their specific area of interest, all in one convenient location.
The virtual trade show exists for the same purpose – to pull together related goods and services that are appropriate for a particular targeted group, and make it easy for them to review and purchase from their computer – sort of an electronic catalog of related items.
The difference is that one requires attendees to congregate in a specific physical locale while the other allows participants to stay put and have the mountains of information brought to them.
Also, the virtual trade show can be left in place and updated on a continual basis for very little money or it can be used to selectively market to targeted groups or individuals on a customized basis.
Before concluding conventional trade shows are dead, don’t forget that not everyone is comfortable or interested in doing business exclusively on the computer.
Many people still like to travel, mingle with other real people who have the same needs and interests, play touchy-feely with the products, and speak face to face with the vendors.
What does this mean for meeting planners? Simple – we now have to learn how to conduct virtual trade shows as well as physical trade shows and in some cases, do both simultaneously.
Good news-Bad news
The good news - Technology is NOT replacing the meeting planner and you do NOT have to become a total techno-geek to stay viable as a meeting planner.
The bad news – If meeting planners do NOT acquire the skills to understand and implement virtual trade shows, they, and the organizations that they work with, will be left behind.
The reality: In order to remain competitive and fully responsive to the needs of their clients, meeting planners need to do two (2) things immediately:
Learn about the currently available tools used to set up and conduct virtual trade shows, what they do, and the advantages to using them and,
Ally themselves with technological firms and individuals that can implement virtual trade show requirements for their clients both now and in the future.
The Current Technology
Here’s a brief overview of the currently available technology. Assume that it will get better, faster, and easier to use over the next 5 years and you’ll understand why it’s becoming so popular. First, the 7 realities:
* The Web is a gigantic library of stored information that exists within the Internet. Current estimate – Over 4 ˝ billion pages of information.
* A Web site that contains a virtual trade show is an electronic catalog that anyone with Internet access can enter and review. Current estimate – 295 million potential users worldwide.
* A virtual trade show is a compilation of vendors using a specific Web site as a convention center for their goods and services. Current estimate – Unknown but growing- fast!
* To ensure that our visitors are informed, entertained, and have the easiest access to information and purchasing options, our virtual trade show needs color, graphics, multi-media, and purchasing options.
* Most importantly, virtual trade shows must be laid out logically, and make the visitor feel comfortable and at ease with the technology. If the visitor becomes frustrated, lost, or confused, they’ll press the stop button on their computer and exit the show.
* The same logistics planning that worked for physical layouts don’t always apply in a virtual trade show. Prime physical locations, like next to a snack bar or restroom have no meaning in a virtual trade show nor do prime times for exhibits – they’re all equal in the virtual world.
* Most exhibitors will want to offer color brochures to the visitors – These brochures represent an inexpensive replacement for mailing materials, a basic element of a web site and easy to do.
But there are 8 new and exciting areas that meeting planners need to experience in order to satisfy the needs of all of their clients:
* Demonstrations. The best approach here is to use streaming audio and video that allow the site developer to integrate audio and video clips into the electronic book and provide the visitor with the option of an “infomercial” type of presentation. The Windows Media Player® is free and supplies the most effective delivery of this material.
* Some items have special needs, for example, a motor home. To effectively tour the inside of a vehicle on-line requires the use of Panorama® (www.livepicture.com) or similar software, a system that allows the web site developer to shoot a 360° panorama of the inside of the vehicle. When the visitor arrives at the site, they can turn left, turn right, look up, and look down, zoom in, and zoom out as thought they were standing inside the vehicle.
* Some products require that the visitor be able to view it from all sides, like a statue, so Panorama® (www.livepicture.com) can be used to photograph the item on a turntable. The visitor can then rotate the item and see what they need to in order make their buying decisions.
* Some products, jewelry as an example, require that close up examination be made available for visitors to see fine details prior to making a decision. Zoom® (www.livepicture.com) software allows the visitor to view the item in as fine a detail as necessary.
* Some items require that the visitor have the option of interfacing with the vendor in real-time. Video teleconferencing is the answer and the free software supplied by Microsoft in the Net Meeting® (www.microft.com/netmeeting.html) package works simply and easily. A PC with a simple television camera for under $150 completes the implementation.
* When we need “scratch pad interface”, (the same thing we’ve done on napkins in coffee shops for years), “white boarding” software that allows both the client and the visitor to speak and draw simultaneously, from remote locations is the answer. Once again, the free software included in Microsoft’s Net Meeting® (www.microft.com/netmeeting.html) package will provide this capability and requires nothing more that a PC with a headset and a mouse.
* Virtual Shopping carts and on-line ordering that makes it easy for the client to request quotations and place orders with almost no hassle help ensure that the maximum amount of business is written with the least amount of effort. There are a variety of these programs including custom written software, but one of the most versatile is Storefront® (www.storefront.net). Storefront® lets the visitor place an order from multiple locations within the site, fills in amounts, cost, shipping charges, and taxes, and automatically processes the credit card transaction.
* Currently under development are systems to provide visitors with 3-dimensional access to a virtual reality (VR) world that will allow them to don a VR headset and stroll through the aisles of this virtual world. As VR technology becomes available, look for it to work its way into the world of trade shows and be prepared to add it to your list of virtual meeting planner’s tools. The technology for this medium is growing like kudzu and more than ever, professional meeting planners are needed to bring a sense of organization and usefulness to the equation.
Most web sites do “techno-flashy” things because they can, rather than because they should.
By adding superfluous “stuff” to a trade show exhibit, we confuse and dilute the visitors’ focus on what’s really important – the sale of the offerings on display.
Because virtual trade shows are far less expensive to implement than physical booth displays, restricting the client’s use of ineffective but flashy elements becomes more challenging.
Conscientious meeting planning addresses this need by bringing a sense of organization and focus to the virtual trade show that ensures that the participant’s objectives are met rather than providing a platform for technological nonsense.
“Virtual meeting planners” are not replacing today’s meeting planners but today’s planners must update their technological skills to support the industries they serve.
Mike Rounds is an international trainer/speaker and consultant in the areas of Internet marketing, marketing research, marketing development, advertising, public relations, project management, and planning. Learn more at www.MikeRounds.com
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