Virtual reality

The Internet’s ability to deliver many of the benefits of live exhibitions to would-be visitors’ desks is far from threatening the UK events industry – it is actually reinvigorating it.

According to many pundits, the Internet poses a serious threat to live events. Websites, they argue, share many of an exhibition’s characteristics, allowing product viewing, data exchange and communication with the host, without the need to travel.

Although the Internet is still in its infancy and has had little time to impinge on the expanding exhibitions market, the evidence so far suggests that it is being used to boost rather than replace the sector. In short, it is making exhibiting and attending more efficient and rewarding rather than killing it off.

Arguably the biggest threat to exhibitions comes from the possibility of recreating the exhibition hall as a virtual environment, eliminating the need for the real thing. The one company that has produced a genuinely sophisticated virtual exhibition environment, Expocentric.com, has done so with out having the elimination of live events on its list of objectives.

“We are not planning to replace live exhibitions,” says the company’s brand communication director Liz Rushall. “The system will sit alongside an existing event to offer a medium of similar power. It will extend the life of an exhibition from a few days to several months, thus allowing exhibitors and visitors to get more out of a show.”

Expocentric.com is essentially a virtual recreation of the exhibition environment. The organiser of a live event can therefore sell virtual stand space both to those exhibiting at the live event and to those without the resources to mount a physical presence. The virtual stands have a three dimensional appearance and visitors get the feel of walking round the halls. They can go to a stand, click on a product and get information from the stand database.

If, say, the stand displays cars, visitors are able to click on the car, change its colour or its specifications and view technical information. They can ask questions, most of which can be answered using software that spots the nature of the query and gives a pre-programmed response. More arcane enquiries will trigger an e-mail link to the exhibitor. The event organiser is provided with a report of who has visited the virtual show, and exhibitors can find out who has looked at their stands.

Users of the site can also view presentation material, link directly to the exhibitors’ websites, buy products using secure e-commerce transaction systems, and set up meetings with other visitors seen walking the halls of the virtual exhibition.

Rushall claims that the system offers huge benefits to all parties. “For the organiser there is a chance to earn additional revenue through the sale of stand space and visitor entrance as well as to help promote the live event. Exhibitors can create dramatic virtual stands very easily, they can promote and sell several weeks prior to and after an event, and even reach customers who cannot attend the live event. Visitors can use the virtual site to plan their time at the actual show and learn more about the products and services on offer so that their visit is more productive.

“The geographical reach for an event is unlimited and we’ve been contacted by, for example, trade shows in Romania interested in targeting German customers. The other big advantage is that after the live event, visitors can access stands that they missed or were too busy at the time of their visit,” says Rushall.

The first event to take advantage of Expocentric.com will be Training Solutions (incorporating the IT Training Show) at the NEC in June. “We decided to try the virtual exhibition for several reasons,” says show director Frazer Chesterman.

“The event does have a high technology content and purchasers are receptive to using technology. Also, we are trying to be innovative because the subject of training can be quite bland. It should also help with pre- and post-show promotion and potentially offers to expand the market for exhibitors. We have found that some of those who have bought stands on the virtual site will not be present at the actual event, but these companies are peripheral to the market anyway and would never take physical space, so it has actually extended our market.”

Training Solutions has so far sold 15 stands and hopes to get between 40 and 50, compared with 220 for the live event.

“This year is very much a trial,” says Chesterman. “But we haven’t discounted prices in the virtual event. Next year we may try to replicate the entire live event online. However, it’s very difficult to predict because it’s such new territory that traditional business models are out of the window.”

One of the biggest arguments against exhibiting is the amount of staff time taken up, less in manning stands – which is seen as productively spent meeting customers – than in planning the event.

Dealing with the appointed stand contractor, for example, can be frustrating and time-consuming as it requires a lengthy process of browsing through catalogues and filling in forms in triplicate so that client, organiser and contractor all have matching information. Several contractors are now introducing online catalogue and booking systems to simplify the whole process.

“What we want to improve is the service to organisers and exhibitors,” comments Early Action Group chief executive Steve Barratt. “Instead of the traditional relationship between the contractor and the client, which has not always been ideal, we want to offer a better quality of service and better value for money.”

Barratt believes that both can be delivered with the help of an online catalogue. “This gives exhibitors the chance to order shell schemes, electrical fittings, floral displays and furniture online. Browsers can view the products, order and pay as they go. We confirm the orders and they are logged with both the organiser and the contractor on-site.

“This makes it a lot easier to sort out any problems because there is no need to look for paperwork. It’s easier and quicker for everyone and ultimately we think it will save organisers money because there will be less need to print catalogues.”

The Early Action system has also included floor plans of most major venues in Europe so that those browsing can check the plan for sight-line obstructions and updates on bookings. The information is also available to them in a range of different languages.

Barratt believes that the system could ultimately contain a wider selection of services. “We are looking at including a lot more information, such as local area maps, hotel details and a facility to book car park passes.”

Companies supplying stand dressing are taking a similar approach. ExpoStuff.com, for example, is a website that allows direct online transactions for such items as pop-up displays, graphic-friendly folding systems, banners, table-top displays, modular systems, leaflet dispensers, shelving and literature display, clip frames and glass cases.

“Even the big guys in the exhibition industry have to source materials but don’t immediately know where to get them from,” says ExpoStuff .com director Malcolm Baker.

“By placing our wares online, we can provide a wider range that can be accessed more quickly, and because it reduces our sales costs through having fewer sales staff per customer, we can pass on savings to the market.”

Lower prices

Baker claims ExpoStuff.com prices will in fact be at least 25 per cent lower than published catalogue prices, or those of traditional outlets.

“We see the site being used not just by the exhibition industry, but by end-users who may have little experience in sourcing display material. ExpoStuff will be a quick and easy route for them to buy online whatever they need, whether it be a few literature holders for a reception area, or a complete medium-sized exhibition stand.”

Stand designers, and in particular those offering modular systems featuring standard components, are also taking this approach. Stands are increasingly designed using CAD (computer aided design) systems. As those packages become simpler to use, it is a logical step to allow the client to take an increasing role in design.

“Where previously that would entail a physical presence at a studio to look at either models or 3-D CAD displays, this can now be done through sending files over the internet,” says WBP managing director of stand suppliers Dan Slark.

“It’s only a short step before the client will actually be able to make design changes online,” he adds.”The process will, to an extent, probably remain one of exchanging ideas, because exhibition designers obviously have more experience of how to create a good stand. But for basic, low budget work, it is possible that the client will simply produce a stand from a selection of components available and order it with the click of a button.”

Attracting trade and public

With all other services to the exhibition industry exploiting the Internet, the venues have had little choice but to enter the fray. Wembley Exhibition Centre, for example, has recently launched a site to offer practical information to both the trade and public.

“We’ve included a “What’s On” listing that provides information on public events and how to get here,” says sales and marketing manager Peter Tudor.

“For the trade, however, the site details technical information and floor plans, and there are links to organisers’ own sites. We are also looking at creating a feature that will detail the availability of rooms at the centre, although it’s unlikely that we would introduce online booking and payment because there has to be a written contract.

“The important thing is that once you launch such a facility, you don’t stop developing it. We are, for example, talking to Expocentric about mapping the Centre so that it can be represented as a virtual environment. There are, of course, other companies that will be seeking to sell similar services in the future, so we have to look at how this can best be done to avoid having to replicate the process several times.”

The UK exhibition industry has not always been seen as forward-looking. For example, its venue infrastructure still trails that of most developed European countries, a position reflected in the importance associated with the medium among British marketers. Embracing new technology, however, could give the UK service infrastructure a head start on European competitors. It won’t transform the industry overnight, but it should make exhibiting in this country more efficient and rewarding.

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