There in spirit

Online exhibitions are a nascent but growing marketing tool. Are they a threat to the traditional ‘real’ event, or a useful adjunct bringing a wider audience extra advantages?

It seems there is no limit to the potential of the Internet for bringing buyers and sellers together. But prospective customers looking for information can find the whole process extremely frustrating. The problem is that keyword searches can bring up a wide range of different sites – many irrelevant – while missing some of the best sites. Even when they find the best, surfers often have to scroll through a lot of pages to glean the information they are after. One solution is online exhibitions, which bring similar products and suppliers together under one virtual roof.

Companies display their products on virtual stands and visitors can browse at their leisure. There are no travel costs and visitors can go whenever they like, as the exhibition runs 24 hours a day for up to a year – and no one has to wear a suit. For time-pressed visitors, it all sounds too good to be true. So could online exhibitions one day take the place of the real thing? Existing online exhibition suppliers like to claim that an online show is complementary to a physical event, but as they rely on exhibition organisers for much of their custom they are reluctant to alienate them. However, they do admit that budgets for online shows have to come from somewhere and the most likely source is the existing exhibitions budget.

Olympian sites

One of the leading suppliers is Webevents. Earlier this year the company hosted an online site to run alongside CRM 2001 at Olympia. Chief executive Andy Bevan admits that the company is treading a dangerous path: “In many industries there are so many events that businesses are questioning the worth of investing in all the exhibitions, so what we are offering will almost certainly take money away from the exhibition organisers. But we have never set out to treat existing exhibitions as our competition; instead we aim to give them what they weren’t getting before, which is more exposure and online back-up information,” he says.

Bevan believes that each type of exhibition will develop its own niche: online for information delivery and lead generation and offline for relationship building. “People will still want to visit a live show to meet friends, chat to clients and the opposition and see, touch and try out new products,” he says.

Another major player, Expocentric, introduces its website with a quote from Dr Allen Konapacki, president of the INCOMM Center for Trade Show Research in Chicago: “By 2005 at least half of the 9,000 trade shows held in the United States every year will be virtual as well as physical.” Nick Birkett, marketing manager of Expocentric, believes that the main value of online exhibitions is to capture those visitors who would not come to a physical event.

Current estimates are that between a third and a half of all decision-makers do not visit exhibitions. For many, it’s simply a question of time, but others, according to research conducted by IT Exhibitions Audit, find exhibitions too pressured and dislike feeling as though they are being sold to. Managing director Peter Heath says: “According to our research the main reason for going to exhibitions, irrespective of whether they are online, is to get more information about products and services. But stands full of salespeople are a turn-off for many. With an online exhibition, visitors can enjoy a much greater degree of privacy.”

Birkett says: “The beauty of an online event working alongside a ground event is that a visitor can do their homework beforehand.” In addition, exhibitors can harness Web technology, such as streaming media, in order to demonstrate their products in a more dynamic way than a traditional stand normally allows. A further benefit to the exhibitor is the registration process, which captures data on visitors and enables them to see exactly who is taking brochures from their stand, be it potential clients or competitors and students.

Expocentric, in association with Oracle, has invested heavily in a system called TRACS (Tracking, Reporting and Active Contact System). Birkett believes that this is Expocentric’s main benefit to exhibitors: “When anyone visits your exhibition stand, unless they leave a business card you have no idea who they were. TRACS records every stand a surfer visits, what they look at and how long they stay there and, of course, it allows exhibitors to validate who is actually coming to the show.” Exhibitors can draw up detailed analyses of their visitors at any point in the exhibition.

Treading on toes?

So what about traditional exhibition organisers? What do they have to gain from online events, if anything? According to the main online players, the benefits for organisers are two-fold. They can extend their brand beyond the physical show, in many instances keeping the online show live all year round, and they can sell their exhibitors more expensive packages. But, inevitably, many in the industry think that exhibitors may decide to actually reduce their spend on ground exhibitions, either taking smaller stands or choosing fewer events.

Online success may be further off than suppliers hope, however. There are plenty of people in the industry who believe that online exhibitions haven’t got it right yet. A lot of users are reluctant to register and there are widespread complaints of the lengthy download times on many sites, as providers have invested in complicated graphics which convey the look and feel of an actual show. However, many visitors work with limited bandwidth, which can make downloading painfully slow.

Bare essentials

Tom Togher has worked in the exhibitions industry for over 30 years and thinks that this is the wrong approach. He recently launched a company, Exhibitions on Line, and although he calls his product an exhibition he has in fact pitched it as more of a directory. “Existing sites short-change the visitor,” he claims.

Togher is a firm critic of the time-consuming graphics which contribute to the “walk-through” feel of many online events. Certainly this user found the slow download and lack of search facilities extremely frustrating on sites developed by other players. Birkett acknowledges the problem, and concedes that the company is looking at how it can use technology to improve the user experience.

In the meantime, Exhibitions on Line is trying to steal a march. Tom Togher’s over-riding goal is to help users find information quickly and easily, particularly by ensuring that keywords are as consistent as possible. “In any industry there are basic products, but online exhibition companies don’t even use the same terminology because they want to appear different and they don’t actually think about what the user wants. It’s like Yellow Pages – there are lots of different headings all for the same thing. That suits advertisers but not users. A potential customer will go to a lot of trouble to research the competition, so you might as well make it as easy for them as possible.”

Another benefit of Exhibitions on Line’s site is that you don’t have to download special software to enter the exhibition. This removes another minor irritation likely to deter the casual visitor. The result is that the company’s site might not have the visual appeal of the others, but it is clearly more functional and much quicker to navigate.

However, for the time being, most exhibitors seem happy with what’s on offer. BT was an exhibitor at Webevents’ CRM 2001 online. PR manager Carolyn Proctor claims that BT decided to take space at the online show quite independently of the physical show and was delighted with the quality of the leads that they received from the event. “Meeting with potential customers at an exhibition is a costly exercise, and there are so many people there that it is often hard to ensure that you spend your time with the people you are trying to influence,” she says.

Proctor believes that, for lead generation, online exhibiting offers real value for money. She admits that prices are low at the moment as online providers try to build a market, but is convinced that there will also be a loyalty bonus for companies that rebook next year. Certainly with ground exhibitions there are usually big discounts on offer – organisers want to prove that an event has been a success by showing high levels of repeat business – so Proctor’s optimism may prove to be well-founded. “With prices the way they are at the moment you’d be crazy not to take advantage of the value that online exhibitions offer,” she says.

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