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Making it virtualNadia 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 businessesfeature24 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 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 ccording 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, A 25BUYING COMMITMENT 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 fi rst 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 fi ve different speakers, see if someone has gone to all fi ve and gauge their level of interest."UBM Live digital director John Welsh said his business committed to fi ve years of investment into virtual events as a signifi cant 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 traffi c 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 APPROACHMcPhail admitted the diverse nature of virtual events has made it diffi cult 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 fi nd 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 refi ned to be mutually benefi cial."The rising cost of energy and increased demand to improve our carbon footprint is also infl uencing travel and consumer behaviours and inevitably costs for their members, generate revenue for their organisation, build the next-generation community in a perpetual environment, provide member benefi ts, 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 WATERSUBM Studios is a virtual events shop providing the technical platform and support services to the fi rm'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 fl oor. "It's all about helping our customers of physical events extend that event's reach," McPhail said. "It is hard to bracket events into specifi c 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 fi elds, she said. MiVex is the fi rst 365-day dedicated virtual expo for the music trade and the brainchild of UK-based music industry veteran Mike Niblock. The idea was conceived after Niblock witnessed falling attendance at the industry's two key annual international exhibitions: The Florida Music Festival and Conference and Midem in Cannes, France. "With what is happening with the economy and the pressure on costs, I felt the time was right to consider a virtual expo for our industry as it gives you exposure 365 days of the year, rather than just the three or four days of an expo," he said. "The professional music industry is moving to digital and there aren't many physical products to be had; it's about listening to and experiencing new talent and opportunities. The industry lends itself to a digital exhibition environment as we can put video, audio and live concert content on the site." The MiVex trade show launches in May and will run 24 hours, seven days a week. It is set-up to look like a physical show, with each exhibitor awarded a virtual booth to dress with their branding and fi ll with multimedia content. Visitors can 'arrive' at a stand, and engage with those manning the booth using Skype or other social media tools. They can also download content into their online briefcase or attend online lectures scheduled by exhibitors throughout the year. It is the exhibitor's responsibility to ensure their content is regularly refreshed online and to inform visitors when new information or lectures are on offer. Visitors will then be charged an annual subscription fee for the trade show - a way of ensuring only B2B representatives are allowed into the event. "For example, if an exhibitor has signed a new artist, they could get the message out via our social media or email channels to visitors, who can then come in and listen to a new recording or video clip," Niblock explained. However, Niblock was insistent his virtual expo wouldn't replace the need for physical exhibitions. "You will never to be able to replace that social aspect, networking or that one-to-one physical contact," he said. "What hopefully MiVex will do is act as one more contact point for new and existing business. It will enable exhibitors to establish new relationships and then if you want to meet them, you can."CASE STUDY: THE VIRTUAL EXHIBITION