Easy Entrance

It is supposed to be convenient, save the cost of a stamp and be over in seconds. Well, they’re right on all three counts. It took this writer less than two minutes to enlist online for the FutureWork exhibition in September.

Down went all my details – where I live, company position, annual IT budget, staff count, and more. Having confessed all, the “Go” button is clicked and it’s done. More details about the exhibition and that essential badge will arrive a week before the event.

Throughout the UK, conference and exhibition organisers are inviting potential visitors to register for their events through the Web. Forget filling in paper forms, shelling out for the postage and waiting – now access to a show is as fast as the speed of your computer will allow.

However, online registration may be all well and good for people who know about FutureWork, which, after all, focuses on the changes to working practices brought about by technology. But what other types of event are using this system, and when did it start to be an option for organisers?

Gill Price, commercial director for The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, says: “We saw this trend starting to take off about 18 months ago.” She points out that, not surprisingly, the major practitioners are IT companies.

“The major benefit of online registration to organisers is they can keep updating their information,” she explains. “They can book or cancel speakers and keep people informed constantly. It makes the event much more lively and interesting.”

But there is still a long way to go before there is total take-up of online registration for events at the QEII Conference Centre.

Price explains: “The take-up of events using the Internet is probably about 25 to 30 per cent – maybe not even that. It really does depend on the type of event being staged. If it is a government event or a press conference, then there is no need to register. But if there is a fee attached, then online registration is a suitable option.”

Price believes it is vital to examine the profile of the delegates and consider whether they are sufficiently IT-oriented before choosing the online option: “The key question is: do they have access to the Internet?”

Two years ago, Venture Marketing, organiser of FutureWork, was a Website-free zone. “It was a mad rush to get a roll-out of Websites for all our shows,” says marketing manager Richard Lewis.

Lewis is pleased with the results so far, although it is clear from the figures that enthusiasm for online registration varies according to the nature of the event. Venture Marketing’s security event, the UK Security Show, registered only four per cent take-up of online registration last year, increasing to nearly 17 per cent this year. However, its Insurance & Financial Services Technology event witnessed a sevenfold increase in visitors registering online this year from just seven per cent to 49 per cent.

Mutual benefits

According to Lewis, it is important to provide a selection of registration mechanisms – whether it is online, by post, fax, or telephone.

Rosie Shreeve, operations director for Incentive World 2000, used online registration for the first time this year and linked it to the show’s Website. “It was undoubtedly a success, with one in five of the 12,500 pre-registered visitors contacting us in this way,” she says.

Online registration has something in it for everyone, says Will Broadfoot, marketing manager for exhibition organiser Brintex. “We have a portfolio of about 15 shows and we have Websites for a third of them,” says Broadfoot. He believes that the benefit for visitors is the simplicity of the registration procedure, while the advantage to the exhibition organiser is a higher number of actual visitor conversions.

Broadfoot explains: “It is one thing getting delegates to sign up but another to actually visit the show. With online registration, once we have captured their e-mail details we can keep in touch with them far more closely.”

Keeping informed

The online option also provides some surprises. Broadfoot cites an example: “We have a wine site and the online registration take-up was 11 per cent last year. This really astounded us for what we thought was a traditional and very personal industry, but the wine site is used very much as a forum for industry debate.”

Apart from pre-registering for a show, the easy flow of information over the Internet enables event organisers to acquaint themselves with visitor profiles and provide follow-on data for potential attendees.

Tristan Wilkinson of PSINet, a business-to-business Internet service provider, explains: “At the moment, online registration is a way of capturing people’s details and the correct spellings as they themselves write them. It smartens up the event’s database.”

Wilkinson points out that Website hyperlinks can lead visitors to other relevant information. For large events, exhibitors and visitors can access a three-dimensional map of the show which highlights routes, locations and specific areas of interest. The technology also allows exhibitors to view show plans, choose a stand or booth, and book that online as well.

Exhibition space and tickets are not all you can buy online. Web service provider Just Results has taken the concept to the next logical stage – it has introduced e-commerce to exhibitions, creating a giant digital supermarket where exhibitors are able to sell their services and products over the Web all year round.

The first customer for this service is Mail Order Live (on show at the NEC, October 15-17). This show, claims Just Results, will mark the first time that an exhibition organiser has set up free online shops for its clients. Each exhibitor will get free Web space within Mail Order Live’s “shopping mall” Web pages until the end of October, with the option of paying £35 per month to stay online.

Just Results claims that the scheme not only creates an opportunity to generate extra revenue for exhibition organisers, but also provides closer contact with exhibitors throughout the year.

Registration, stand booking, Internet ordering – this is the influence of the digital era on exhibitions. So how long will it be before the whole thing is done through the Web and there will no longer be a need to crawl through Britain’s overcrowded motor- ways or tramp miles round the halls of the NEC?

Online conferencing, for example, is a development already materialising – or should that be de- materialising? SyNet recently hosted a global online conference for the world’s top embryologists.

“It was very successful,” says Steven Laitman, director of SyNet Communications. “We had the top guys from 53 countries and about 600 people took part. People haven’t got the time to travel nowadays, but they could pop in and out of the online conference as it suited them.”

IT progress

But Laitman does not believe that exhibition and trade show organisers are facing extinction. Online conferencing will never kill off the live event, he says. “People will always want to touch and feel and you do lose that physical aspect with a virtual event.” And while the Web is the hot thing for many visitors, exhibitors are aware that it could alienate others.

“Exciting as online registration is at the moment, we would never have total online registration facilities,” says Richard Lewis of Venture Marketing. “We would always retain a paper-based offer for our visitors. And that applies for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to spend my lunch hour reading stuff on a computer.”

This point is echoed by Austen Hawkins, deputy director of the Association of Exhibition Organisers. “Most of our members will be taking up online registration facilities,” says Hawkins. “It extends the reach of their shows and it makes everything more efficient. But by the same token, none of them will use it exclusively. The whole point about using IT is not to exclude people, but to take things forward.”

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