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Streams of Thought: The Benefits of Going Virtual for Trade Shows

There's an old Stephen Wright joke about being able to see clearly, even at long distances. "Who is it?" the joke starts, with Wright peering through a telescopic peephole on his front door. "Who's it going to be when you get here?" In classic Wright fashion, the joke ends with a question mark, which pretty much sums up a large portion of my thinking on web-based trade shows. Like any perplexing problem that requires a long gestation period, I've taken my time peering through the virtual trade show peephole.

After receiving an announcement for a virtual trade show for HIMSS (the Health Information and Management Systems Society), which takes place in early June, I began to think about this topic again. Searching back through my emails, I found one from February 1999, where a client had asked about a virtual component to a now-defunct trade show called MultiMediaCom. The email reminded me of the issue that most organizers had with the virtual trade show concept: that it might cannibalize trade show attendance by offering a virtual alternative.

The solution we offered to the client-which was not accepted-is the same one that trade show organizers face today: offer the virtual trade show as an extra benefit to your exhibitors to reach those who might not be able to attend or for those who did attend but want to catch up on what they missed or review what they saw. Here are overviews of four ideas we recommended, all of which use streaming or progressive download videos as the key medium:

1. Use live streaming for "bumpers" or "teasers" during the event. Just like on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, these short pieces show what's going on and what the viewer is missing by not being here. 

2. Create reference video for use at each vendor's booth. S. Ann Earon, who will head up a lunch-and-learn at the 2010 InfoComm show aptly noted during the 1999 email discussion that there is often a great deal of intriguing video equipment on the real show floor, but there doesn't seem to be much good reference video shown on the equipment. The same content can be used for comparative tests and shootouts.

3. Showcase a vendor's or speaker's product or service. This is the one that everyone thinks of when the term "virtual trade show" is tossed about. Why not use the products available on the show floor to capture these showcase videos? After all, if technology is the focus of the conference or trade show, use that technology to show what can be done with it. Yes, it may be akin to capturing and editing the content in a "fishbowl." But the fishbowl raises awareness of on-site participants and acts as a "geek magnet" in the process. It makes the production a production in some ways and never fails to charm.

4. Create a potential marketing piece for future events. Don't underestimate the fact that testimonials from show floor booths can not only be used for a live virtual trade show but also can be polished to adequately capture the essence of what the live event is all about. This overview barely scratches the surface of an emerging trend, one that will grow sales and interest in trade shows rather than cannibalizing event sales. In a future column, we'll take a look at specific trade shows that have crossed the chasm to use the virtual trade show to their competitive advantage.