A few weeks ago, 8,000 people attended a scrapbook-making convention. They exchanged tips, attended educational sessions and made new friends. They visited exhibit booths, met and chatted with exhibitors, and watched product demonstrations. It was a highly successful event, even though no one was actually there.

Webcasts, webinars, and online meetings have become commonplace in the last few years. More recently, a new breed of events, designed to resemble real-world conferences and trade shows are bringing together chat, virtual reality, 3D graphics, and live video intended to give attendees sitting at their computers the feeling of really being there. Both show presenters and the public at large have been enthusiastically receptive.

“In 2006, our first year offering virtual trade shows and conferences, we did about 30 of these events,” notes Malcolm Lotzof, CEO of InXpo, a virtual event provider. “In 2007, we did about 120. We’ll probably do about three times that in 2008.” A typical InXpo event includes a virtual trade show, where attendees can wander around a 3D area, visit exhibit booths, watch demos, and chat with vendors; an auditorium, where traditional webcasts are offered, and audience members can also chat among themselves; and a lounge, where attendees can meet for informal conversation, much like a traditional chat room. Though chat in the lounge is text-only for the moment, depending on users’ bandwidth limitations, exhibit booths can have voice chat and even video chat, he says.

Why the huge interest in virtual conferences? Two real-world developments have combined to make them appealing, Lotzof says. On one hand, with broadening broadband and speedier Internet connections, video and 3D graphics are easier to use than ever before. On the other hand, actual travel has become more complex, costly and uncomfortable. “Those two things together are making virtual meetings take off,” he says.

Is virtual better than the real thing

No one is suggesting that virtual conferences can or should take the place of actual ones. But they do present some unmistakable advantages over in-person events. For one thing, they’re much cheaper. “You don’t have to pay for drayage, hotels, food or brochures,” notes Debbie McGrath, chief instigator and CEO at HR.com, a social network for human resource professionals.

Because events are so much more affordable, it’s easy to have many of them, geared toward specific segments of a target market. HR.com first tried out the virtual meeting concept in late 2007 with its event The View, using InXpo, which drew 2,800 HR professionals. In 2008, McGrath says, the group plans to have lots more events -- 42 of them -- focusing on such sub-topics as benefits, hiring, and training.

Affordability also means more people can come to virtual events, Lotzof notes. “A company will usually only send one or two people to a conference,” he says. “But if there are 50 people in the company who could benefit, all 50 can attend a virtual event.”

No avatars need apply

There are some companies using Second Life and other virtual reality environments for meetings and other events, but Lotzof believes the use of avatars for virtual meetings is counterproductive. “Second Life, as demonstrated by its name, is a place where people can assume another identity and travel around doing whatever they want. The whole purpose of a conference or trade show is to have real people meet each other,” he says.

For this reason, InXpo meetings usually give attendees the choice of being represented by a simple, featureless avatar, or a photograph, which is what 90 percent of them select. (Though not always of themselves: McGrath reports that a woman named Betty attended The View using a photo of Ugly Betty from the ABC series.) Live video is another option that will become more common as more people start using webcams, Lotzof adds.

Getting the most out of not being there

How do you get the most out of a virtual event? Here are some tips if you’re thinking about creating a conference:

1. Let attendees help create content. “In a traditional event, the show’s producers would be very stringent about who presents the content,” McGrath says. “You wouldn’t have vendors bashing other vendors in a group chat, or sessions that were just giant discussions moderated by an expert presenter. But online, that’s acceptable.”

2. Use the opportunity to learn about your audience. During The View, HR.com was able to gather detailed information about attendees, not only their demographics and company affiliation, but also which sessions they attended, which booths they visited and for how long. “You couldn’t get this kind of information in a physical show,” McGrath notes.

3. Find a green screen. One way to add a sense of immediacy is to video one of your top executives saying words of welcome in front of a green screen, and then overlay the video on the graphics of the event. Lotzof says. “It makes the experience that much more real if you show the person walking around the event,” he says. "It makes it feel a little more like you’re there.”

Using this kind of gee-whiz technology contributes an element of dazzle that helps create a successful virtual event, McGrath says. “You have to make the event fun for people. It can’t only be educational.”