Can a virtual trade show replace a live event?

As the organiser of the Specialist Media Show I am well aware of the practical headaches of live events – venue costs, choosing a date, stand and feature build and break down, not to mention the carpet!  There’s also the task of persuading visitors to take a day out and travel for hours and convincing exhibitors that the extra costs of staff time and travel are justified.  So the idea of virtual events is highly appealing – no venue cost, no shell scheme, no carpet or catering – and it should be easier to persuade visitors to attend for a few hours from their computer screen, and for smaller exhibitors to try out the environment.

But can a virtual show replace the thrill and spectacle of a live event?  I think it’s unlikely in consumer events, where people want to touch and feel the product, but could be more interesting in b2b shows, where the products are intangible and exhibitors focus on lead generation.  Some UK organisers are testing the water, but the US as usual is more advanced.  Yesterday I attended Publishing Business Virtual Expo to road test the environment.  Here’s my admittedly subjective view based on the main reasons visitors and exhibitors attend trade shows, with a star rating based on the quality of the experience vs live:

1. Inspiring ideas from thought leaders in the industry

There was a full programme of webinars from good quality speakers with live audio comments and Q&A.  It was helpful to be able to download slides instantly, and the content was good, but it was all too easy to get distracted and slip off to check emails while the webinar was in progress.  The sound quality was not great, and without video coverage it was harder to follow speakers.  So not quite as compelling as a live seminar.  ***

2. Discovering new suppliers and services

It was easy to browse exhibitors in the hall – they were limited in number but each had a virtual booth, with video demos, options to download case studies and white papers, which could be collected in a virtual briefcase.  Visitors can start chat sessions with exhibitors’ staff, either publicly or 1-1.  As they were “open for business”, one can ask questions without getting too much of a sales pitch.  At a busy time there was a delay in responses to chat sessions, but that was better than hanging around a crowded physical stand waiting for your turn!  Harder to get a personalised demo of a product or service, but good for initial data-gathering. ****

3. Networking within the industry

While in the virtual show visitors can see a list of other attendees signed in, and when at a stand or the networking lounge, a list of the others in that same place.  One can check out profiles online, but it is harder to initiate conversations without the physical cues of waiting for coffee, or being able to ask a neighbour to introduce you.  So not yet a substitute for face to face networking. **

4. Learning from peers

Part of the value in attending a live event is being able to catch up with old colleagues and discuss current issues in the business in a relaxed environment.  This doesn’t happen as naturally in a virtual show – maybe because people are time-pressured and multi-tasking – and also because people are more guarded online than face to face. *

5. Lead generation for exhibitors

Exhibitors attend shows to generate quality leads, and find out who is currently in the market for their services.  Virtual shows have the advantage of an international reach, and the lower commitment level means more attendees.  Staff don’t need to leave the office, and can easily check out the background of visitors to their stand and send them useful content.  Maybe engagement levels are lower – those who go to a live event are perhaps the more serious buyers – but it is still a powerful showcase for exhibitors: ****

So overall, I see virtual trade shows as a complementary channel to live events.  Visitors still like the face to face networking within their industry they get at a live event, but in a world where one has too many events to attend, virtual trade shows are a great way to pick up ideas and initiate new contacts.  Some trade shows run for days or months – and they are likely to work well for bringing buyers and sellers together.  For networking and thought leadership within an industry though, I still believe live events have an edge.

What is your experience?  Please comment below or join the Specialist Media Network on Linked-in where hundreds of specialist media people swap ideas and tips.

About the author: Carolyn  Morgan runs Penmaen Media, a consultancy advising media owners on how to profit from digital media and marketing. She is also content director for the Specialist Media Show. If you’d like an informal discussion about how you can develop new revenue sources for your specialist media business please contact Penmaen Media for a chat.