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In general, the Internet and online communities have skyrocketed to success with no plateau in site. Why is it that some online ventures, such as Virtual Trade Shows (VTS), have not been able to ride the Internet’s coattail to success, no matter how hard they try? VTS aren’t even attempting to take over the live shows that currently flourish; they simply want to co-exist with the advantage of being a 24-7-365 resource. Seems like a great addition for exhibitors internet-savvy enough to make a smooth transition, but for others it remains an alien concept to be kept as far away as possible.

The minimal success of VTS is generally attributed to these arguments:

  • Loss of face to face interaction
  • Inability to touch or see a demonstration of the product
  • Lack of technical knowledge

These are the same arguments so many people used to criticize e-commerce and social networking sites when they were starting out. Fault must lie somewhere within this critique because it has been proven wrong previously. People have learned to shop, network and conduct business meetings online; they even prefer it in many cases. If these cons are seemingly invalid, then what’s the problem…?

There are some great advantages to exhibiting and attending a Virtual Trade Show. Besides the fact that they are engaging and intriguing to new users (its like you are playing SimCity, check out Second Life that lets you go so far as to pick out whether want to wear a suit or jeans for your virtual meeting with Google), they are cost efficient and a huge time saver. Detailed reporting is available of exactly what each attendee is doing, your conversations are recorded and you can monitor what other products attendees are interested in. This means exhibitors don’t have to go back to their office and spend hours deciphering scribbled notes about who they talked to. ROI is tracked and marketing is targeted to people in a buying mindset, mirroring the benefits of online advertising. VTS are significantly cheaper than attending a live event, in fact the total cost is typically cheaper than just the shipping cost for a regular show. There are no travel fees, no hotels, and no food/entertainment costs. In addition, virtual shows are not affected by weather, you can talk to more than one person at a time, international attendance is easier and attendees can linger anonymously and take their time learning about a product. In sum, the person spending the money to attend these shows should be a huge supporter. That’s if the amount of traffic and recognition actually rivaled the live events.

So, what needs to happen to make this work? I personally think that the only groups capable of positively impacting this product are the large trade show producers. These producers, such as The Nielsen Company and Reed Exhibitions, control everything in the realm of conventions. Without their support attendees and exhibitors are not going to feel comfortable investing their time and energy in VTS. There are two major roadblocks in getting the major trade show companies to support the combination of their live events with a virtual companion. The first problem is, the advantages that exist for the exhibitors and attendees do not hold true for the producers. Instead they will loose a great deal of profit if people start deciding they can send less people to the live trade shows and spend less on advertising at the shows. Second, large trade show producers are deathly afraid of the Internet. Most of them are years behind where they should be when it comes to their websites and online advertising. If they have a site where you can find the dates, location, a contact, some pictures and a description they are happy. If you can register online and get some sort of newsletter updates they think their website is the best it needs to be. Many of the trade show producers will be completely at the mercy of the VTS developers.

While virtual trade shows generally have not produced a large profit the future is definitely looking brighter, and so it is not time for them to give up yet. After five years of dismal results, the largest VTS company Unisfair, finally boasted a 350% growth in 2007. This month also marks the first acquisition of a VTS. Worldwide Business Research, who produced over 200 live trade shows last year, acquired the company eComXpo, a VTS for e-Commerce marketers.

My prediction:  Virtual Trade Shows will eventually team up with major trade show producers to find a happy medium. 



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