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irtual events have been coined a 'dirty phrase' in the conference and meetings industry with cynics suggesting they take away the crucial face-to-face element of networking at live events. But with the current unstable economy and virtual event companies claiming these types of events can cut costs by 90 per cent, turning your conference virtual could make sound business sense.A virtual event is a gathering of people, where some or all of the attendees may not be in the same geographical location but are connected by a common virtual environment. These can either be designed as standalone virtual platforms or to run alongside a live event as a hybrid solution.They are highly interactive; looking and feeling a lot like their physical counterparts.Virtual events can offer visitors access to educational content and stands on an exhibition fl oor. After registering and once inside the virtual doors visitors are able to browse the event fl oor, chat with stand staff and other attendees, download whitepapers and other e-literature and attend live presentations via webcast.VUK-based Virtual ivent has pioneered TECHNOLOGYFebruary 2012 . . 31 Hybrid events allow companies to do more with what they have New virtual world You've heard talk of virtual events but have no idea what it means or where to start. Vikki Carley sorts the avatars from the hallobbies to tell you all you need to know about the virtual world of eventsnew technology to create and launch a complete virtual conferencing and events package. It claims one of its clients cut its bill for organising a single international conference from £300,000 to £30,000 by becoming virtual.Virtual ivent's Virtual Director, Gavin Newman, told CN: "The company has spent two years in research and development."Our virtual venues include rooms for speakers to make their presentations and where seminars can take place, as well as conference hallobbies where delegates can chat. "The technology we have developed and brought together allows people to gain more information and be totally interactive. We can create the full atmosphere of an exhibition hall with virtual display stands. Our bespoke service also means we can create virtual classrooms and collaboration labs."Newman says he has seen an increased interest in virtual events in the last year."When we fi rst launched the company three years ago, we thought because there has been a recession, everyone wants to use virtual events to save money. We were wrong. Companies weren't ready for virtual, they knew nothing about it. "The last 12 months things have changed, people are more educated about the world of virtual and are keen to try something new."Hybrid events, according to Newman, are a popular medium. "Hybrid events allow companies to do more with what they have. We are seeing content from live events being reworked into virtual events for those companies to roll out throughout the year to provide a continuous message to their client base," he says.Statistics from Market Research Media found the worldwide virtual conference market is forecasted to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 56 per cent between 2010 and 2015

TECHNOLOGY32 . . February 2012February and to generate $18.6bn revenues over the same period.Three in four brand marketers anticipate exhibitions will include a virtual element in the future. Weetwood Hall Conference Centre and Hotel in Leeds has invested in a data conferencing suite which uses SMART technology to deliver virtual meetings. The venue has a licence that facilitates access for up to 25 delegates and the suite can accomodate up to 10 delegates.Weetwood Hall's GM Peter Chubb says it has not been popular. "We continuously promote this offering as part of our services. We may be at the forefront of technology at this stage, but we need organisers and trainers to become more confi dent in using the equipment," says Chubb.Three virtual conferences were held in the suite during 2011, which costs £350 for half a day and £500 for a full day, including VAT and refreshments.The most successful event the venue has hosted in the suite was for 40 delegates attending a forum at The Windown in islington, London. Delegates could view on screen what was being presented from the data suite."People are not engaging with this service as yet, but we still envisage this to be a service of the future," the spokesman adds.Global virtual event company INXPO has conducted 2,500 l virtual events and experiences for global corporations, associations and publishers including: 3M, AAA, Bank of America, Cisco, Dell, The Gap, Hilton, HIMSS, GE Healthcare, PennWell, SAP, Sony, TechTarget, Yahoo, and Ziff Davis Enterprises.INXPO's web-based environments are used for marketing, HR, sales, and training. and features include webcasts, live chat, content socialisation and complete metrics reporting.An INXPO spokesman says: "Online communities are becoming the norm. But simply having one is not enough. You need to keep the community engaged in dialogue with your brand, interacting with one another, and generating customer intelligence."According to a 2011 survey of marketers by virtual events company Unisfair 60 per cent of respondents said they planned to increase spending on virtual environments and events, and 67 per cent contemplated hosting 10 or more virtual events in the 12 months following the survey. Forty-six percent of the respondents said they expect more than 50 percent of corporate events will be physical-virtual hybrid affairs within two years.It seems the conference and meetings industry has a long way to go before it fully embraces the idea of virtual events. Evidence to suggest the merits of virtual events over real life face-to-face networking is also yet to be seen. Will virtual events replace real life events? I dont think so. But can you afford not to investigate further? Benefi ts of organising a virtual event:Virtual event provider ON24 carried out a survey of 5,000 marketing professionals asking how virtual events may provide benefi ts:60% of people in a Unisfair study said they planned to increase spending on virtual events in the next 12 monthssaid they preferred interacting and networking interactively.of event providers said they were interested in staging virtual events to save money.of event providers were interested in virtual events to save time.of recipients said they were more likely to attend a virtual event than a face-to-face event.said they were equally confi dent networking interactively.said business travel is failing to improve and voted in favour of virtual events because of this