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Physical events see resurgence with virtual innovations

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Experimentation with digital environments continues as face-to-face events bounce back The same market factors that have depressed events revenues during the ongoing economic slump also strengthened the foothold that virtual technologies have in the b-to-b landscape. Media companies provided digital destinations where their brands and third-party marketers could connect with an audience without incurring expenses for plane tickets and hotel rooms. “We saw a sharp upturn in virtual events around the financial crisis of 2008,” said Dennis Shiao, director-product marketing at virtual platform provider INXPO. “But now that economic conditions are coming back, we're seeing healthier growth of physical events that may have been cut in the past.” For most media companies, however, the face-to-face resurgence has not led to abated interest in virtual environments. Even as the events market rebounds, publishers are still working to revise their virtual strategies and improve the digital environments that have become part of their portfolios. They are building digital extensions of their in-person events, adding interactive features to live-streamed webinars, overhauling their virtual trade shows and stretching into custom content production. Every company has its own approach to the platform. Hanley Wood has experimented with a variety of event models. The company has retired concepts that didn't perform well and moved forward with perpetual environments such as Hanley Wood University and Hanley Wood TV, interactive platforms in which marketers can sponsor content—including video and webcast sessions captured at live events, said Andy Reid, president-digital and head of strategic development at Hanley Wood, a housing industry media company. The company has seen particular success with its virtual show homes, which attract both b-to-b and consumer audiences to digital extensions of real-life model homes developed for the annual International Builders' Show. “The number of virtual experiences is continuing to grow,” Reid said. “In spite of the downturn in the construction industry, we've seen meaningful growth [of revenue from virtual environments] year-over-year.” The virtual show homes exemplify Hanley Wood's strategy, which is not to create a digital replica of a real-world trade show environment but to extract one specific piece of event content and build a virtual product around it, Reid said. The virtual homes invite visitors to see a deeper layer of the model homes built for the live event, extending both the function and the reach of the concept. Event attendees can view the project in person, then join a broader online audience to see behind the walls and look at installations. The virtual model looks very different at UBM Studios. Launched specifically to pursue virtual opportunities, the UBM unit creates hybrid and standalone virtual environments for the company's media brands, and also produces custom digital environments, communities and webcasts for marketing clients. Virtual-only components make up the majority of its environments, said Kate Spellman, president of the division. “We went through a period where it was all about peer-to-peer content, but [marketers] also are looking for knowledge leadership,” Spellman said. Online marketers tend to control the dollars spent on virtual environments, she said. Their perspective is transforming a user experience once defined by event marketers, who promoted a layout that visually mimicked a trade show floor. “The digital group is giving [virtual environments] a different look and feel,” Spellman said. “Some of that we are calling "social business television' because you have video experience, interactivity, talking peer-to-peer and editorial information.” While events marketers might bring expertise in organizing and producing live content, the evolving interface favored by online marketers is more intuitive and requires fewer clicks than the traditional virtual trade show model, Spellman said. She expects all events to eventually migrate to the simplified format. “We're in the middle of a transformation,” she said. BNP Media is also pushing forward a virtual model that does not include booths. The company, which produces five virtual-only trade show environments, will launch its first hybrid extension next February and eventually plans to roll out digital extensions for each of its live events, said Danielle Belmont, senior online events manager. Exhibitors will not need to staff concurrent physical and virtual booths, she said. “We're still going to do sponsorships within the virtual platform, but we're not going to have an exhibit floor.” Instead, attendees will schedule appointments around popular sessions captured at the face-to-face event and imported into the virtual environment. The strategy allows the company to monetize and maximize the exposure of the content that it has developed. “All of the content you're producing for a physical event, why not get [a] return by putting it online?” said Shiao of virtual platform provider INXPO, with which BNP works. As face-to-face events rebound, event producers should invest in hybrid extensions, Shiao said. “You might have additional incremental costs like the platform and bandwidth to stream it, but it adds ROI back to the equation,” he said. Professional Media Group, publisher of University Business and District Administration, has successfully leveraged virtual extensions of such face-to-face events as UBTech Conference, according to CIO Stephanie Martinez. The company streams live conference sessions that allow virtual attendees to interact in real time with conference speakers; low-cost access passes are structured to allow attendees to share virtual content with colleagues. “Their budgets are tight, so we're not trying to make a lot of money,” Martinez said. “Ultimately, it's a better promotional vehicle. We use virtual to drive traffic to our website and to grow our attendance base.” About a third of in-person attendees circle back to the website to watch virtual content, she said. This year, attendance at UBTech jumped 20% to 1,200 attendees—an increase that Martinez attributes in part to the conversion of past virtual-only attendees. The company uses captured content to keep the engagement going post-event, sending emails promoting the sessions and encouraging its audience to check out its print product as well as the year-round series of webinars that it puts together. Professional Media Group has also started to produce 8-minute video teasers of the most popular sessions—short clips that can promote attendance at the conference or a visit to the company website. “We're not trying to lock down the content,” Martinez said. “Our goal is to grow the live event as much as possible.” Some events producers, however, are weighing their options as physical events bounce back. Todd Kotlarek joined Trade Press Media Group as director-live events in 2008 and, during the economic downturn, launched five standalone virtual events. His strategy converted a features-oriented sales pitch to a results-oriented pitch highlighting the reporting capabilities of the virtual environment. But he said the number of virtual events would be back as he builds in-person events in the company's building and facilities vertical. “During the downturn, I was looking for ways to diversify our revenue stream,” he said. “Now live events are way up, so that's where the focus is taking us.”
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