Everyone has a sticking point when it comes to the impact of technology. My hard-headed friend who cannot imagine that virtual exhibitions will ever get off the ground positively salivates when we talk about personalized learning in a mobile context. And he was close to my thoughts last week when I attended the Dublin Web Summit. In fact, it might have been his bulky frame that kept on standing up and cutting off my field of vision from the fixed camera position. Because, you see, I wasn’t actually there. Twelve international airports in the previous 28 days had quite cured me of the urge to travel. But I did not miss anything that I had wanted to see in Dublin, and much that I was able to hear was excellent. Other parts less so: web summits are rather macho for my taste, and  entrepreneurial boasts about their social outreach and their unique viewer growth have more resonance in body building than in business. But the Summit itself, in conjunction with Livestream, performed its function, and started me thinking again about the role of virtual events.

And from a couple of answers to my enquiries there does seem to be a change from when I last looked at this a year ago. One obvious point of enquiry was Comdex, famously bought by UBM for a dollar, and revived as a virtual event. The news is that in its second year this show increased its exhibitors significantly, and now seems to be attracting well over 5000 paying customers, making it an exhibition worth attending. Elsewhere, it would be my surmise that Globalspec, having launched a great number of events last year, are now doing a sort of culling operation, retaining and building what works and scrapping the rest.

If virtual eventing is to emerge as an art form, then it is important that shows should be cheap to initiate and that there should be a sort of rough hewn hierarchy of development values in play. This seems to be happening, as shows get upgraded from virtual conferencing to “catalogue exhibitions” and then on to virtual reality full-on, with a genuine effort being made to replicate the communications of the exhibition hall. Conferences superficially seem easier, but simply watching a live videocast and tweeting may not be the most interesting interaction we have ever had. Few have moved to live broadcast full interactivity, yet it is surely only a turn of the network wheel away. Wait for colleagues to say “I was in a really interesting conference in Tokyo on the train coming into Waterloo this morning..”

So lets look around and see the variety of models now at work. All of these happen to be in UBM (a lesson in the results of listening closely to David Levin!) but they are not untypical of the range of activities happening elsewhere. Of course, you would expect the technology events to be on the move here, but they are certainly not the vanguard. Black Hat is interesting: this security technology meeting has opted for variable packages for online users depending on whether they attend on the day, or look at it retrospectively. So if you go to Uplink, in this case, for live streaming video, you get 2 tracks of 20 supplier briefings, two keynotes and the interactive service which allows you to ask questions and enter into dialogue. If you use the on demand service you get two keynotes and the best two presentations from each track. And if you visit Interop online, you simply get a video library to search and download.

But I found two areas where different models and pace of development were in play. Airline maintenance costs and technology is clearly one. I surmize that you may have to sleep a long time between sessions, so visiting this in bed may be essential. However, I was really taken with www.retailinvestorsconference.com. This is a neat partnership between Betterinvesting (National Association of Investors Corp, www.betterinvesting.org) with  MUNCmedia and UBM’s PR Newswire. The target is private investors, and particularly those who do not use advisors or stockbrokers. They do a one day virtual meeting a month. On 3 November you could have heard a presentation by the Nasdaq – quoted China Precision Steel Corp. As part of the deal, the video and presentation collateral get distributed by PR Newswire. However, attendees on the day (I wonder if they give their avatars blue rinses!) have a terrific range of interactive choices. They can go to the auditorium and hear the session (EST timings get Florida as well as the North East). Or they can go to the Exhibit Hall and visit the presenter’s booth, make contact with staff and ask further questions. Finally, there is the Lounge, with the opportunity to talk to other investors and see what experiences they have had. The organizers appear to be doing one day a month, and up to 8 sessions per day. This is like having a trade show with 96 exhibitors and speakers – and a huge growth opportunity within the other 353 days of the year.

So a wide range of business and presentation models, but now I feel that this movement is rumbling towards real marketplaces. The App and tablet combination will be important in making theses shows work, and making their interfaces seamless. Ambitious management in tough times are trying to make a little technology go a long way, and charge for the virtual as if it were real, Some of the pricing packages will slow market development, and some of the attempted bundles are too ambitious as well. My feeling is that this opportunity is larger – and cheaper – than many believe.

And, finally, there is one opportunity here which is being seriously neglected. Virtual events throw off data like dandruff. Skilled developers will know everything about user profiles – who is interested in what, what key questions were asked, what ongoing interest survived the meeting etc. This can be anonymized and re-used, subjected to analysis on behalf of individual clients, and served up to help newcomers to profile themselves  when they first use the service. It adds value and serves to offset the effect on pricing of relatively lower cost bases. But above all, it  brings the  events companies to the important threshold of becoming B2B data companies, and if they fail that challenge then they will fail the full opportunity that becomes available when these new businesses mature. Lets postpone the rush to judgement. The jury is still out and the odds must be stacked in favour of a huge advancement in the age-old business of introducing buyers to sellers happening here.


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