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Rich Brazeau thought his time at the trade show had been a success. In just two hours, Brazeau, a marketing director at Qualys, an IT security company in Redwood Shores, California, had chatted up 25 attendees at his booth and taken contact information from at least 15 others who stopped by. And he didn't have to hop on an airplane or even leave his desk to do it.
In an effort to draw attendees in a time of shrinking travel budgets, trade shows are going virtual. People like Brazeau attend these events through their Web browsers. The trade shows, which resemble virtual worlds such as Second Life, may last only a few hours or span several days. As with any real-world trade show, there are presentations from speakers, exhibit halls, and even lounges -- sans virtual cocktails -- where attendees can mingle with other participants.
Setting up a virtual booth takes as little as an hour. Exhibitors choose from predesigned displays, add their company logos, and upload promotional materials, such as brochures, white papers, and videos. Exhibitors man the booth from their computers, often while doing other work. When a visitor clicks on a company's booth, employees receive an alert. They can talk to the visitor through a chat window or, if both parties have Web cameras, by video. If no one is available to speak, a visitor can leave a message.
Most events don't require an extensive knowledge of virtual environments. "We don't believe professionals want to spend time building avatars," says Brent Arslaner, vice president of marketing for Unisfair, a Menlo Park, California, company that produces virtual events. After an attendee registers for an event, his or her contact information is automatically compiled into a profile, which others can view and download when the show goes live.
Procuring a booth at a virtual trade show isn't always cheap, but it's usually less expensive than renting space in a traditional exhibition hall, which can exceed $15,000 before travel costs. Prices vary, because they are set by the organizers of the expos -- typically industry associations and trade publications -- but a virtual booth costs $3,000 to $8,000 on average, says Arslaner. Those savings have prompted Qualys to scale back on smaller regional trade shows in favor of online events. "We still do key events physically, but more of our events are online," says Amer Deeba, Qualys's chief marketing officer.
Virtual shows often provide more detailed data about attendees than a physical event can. For instance, InXpo, a virtual events company based in Chicago, keeps tabs on how much time attendees spend at each booth. "We track everything everybody does," says Malcolm Lotzof, InXpo's CEO. Exhibitors get access to some of that data as well as the contact information of all attendees who stop by their booths. Some shows even guarantee each exhibitor a certain number of sales leads.
Still, the virtual expos don't get nearly as many visitors as in-person events: A typical show may attract a couple thousand visitors, versus 8,000 or so at a physical expo. And because of the lower costs -- admission is usually free -- attendees at virtual expos tend to be smaller companies rather than large corporations. That's why Qualys uses virtual shows to target small and medium-size customers in specific markets but continues to exhibit at larger shows to maintain its visibility among large corporate customers. "There are drawbacks if you're not there at certain conferences, especially in an industry like ours, with many big players," says Deeba.
But the intimacy of virtual trade shows sometimes allows smaller firms to get more attention than they would receive at a big expo. That was a selling point for Proofpoint, a Sunnyvale, California, e-mail security company that has recently exhibited at three virtual events. At its last virtual trade show, the company picked up more than 500 sales leads. "They tend to be smaller, so it's easier to navigate and see who is there," says Akiko Honda, Proofpoint's senior marketing programs manager.
Can you really make good conversation with potential customers when you are hundreds of miles away, hunched over your computer and checking e-mail and taking phone calls at the same time? Honda admits that the absence of face-to-face interaction is a downside. "It's great to be able to put a face to a name," she says, "to align who you are with the company's message."
On the other hand, virtual expos last a lot longer. Unlike physical events, in which displays come down to make way for the next show, the virtual booths live on unmanned, often for up to six months after the event dates. Some shows are even designed to be year-round displays, such as Enlighten America, a virtual expo launched by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, or NEMA, last September. That show, which focuses on energy-efficient lighting technology, features 50 exhibitors and has drawn more than 2,000 attendees even without being staffed by live representatives. The traffic has especially benefited many of NEMA's smaller members, says Keith T.S. Ward, president and COO of EYE Lighting in Mentor, Ohio, and chairman of the Enlighten America committee. "It gives us equal footing to compete with larger companies," he says.
Given that companies are tightening their budgets to ride out the recession, that exposure and efficiency are even more appreciated. For some clients, Deeba notes, virtual shows have become the primary channel for initial contact. "A lot of our target buyers don't have budgets to travel," he says. "More and more, you have to go online to reach them."
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