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Virtual trade shows mature

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Virtual trade show technology has been available for about six years, but its time has finally come in b-to-b media as more companies seek to broaden their offerings of online events.

"I didn't see the point, at first," said Prescott Shibles, VP-online development/ new media at Prism Business Media, recalling that he thought early efforts to replicate trade shows online seemed amateurish. But now he admits he missed seeing the medium's potential.

EC&M, a title for electrical professionals (www.ecmweb.com), recently was the first in the Prism stable to host an online trade show. "In this first attempt, we were very pleased with usage, response and financial support," Shibles said, without offering details. "This experience has definitely given us something to think about going forward."

Since November 2004, Ziff Davis Media has held nine virtual trade shows, predominantly in its enterprise group. The Consumer/Small Business Group held its first virtual trade show during the last week of August, said Jason Young, the group's president. "The topic was security and mobility for small and medium businesses," Young said. "We had 4,250 registrants, and more than 3,000 people logged in for the live events."

Young evaluated the event in terms of audience size, audience quality and engagement. "All three were home runs," he said, adding: "[This is] confirmation that there's great demand from both viewers and exhibitors to participate in this type of event."

Michael Kushner, VP-integrated media solutions at Advantage Business Media (formerly Reed Business Information's Rockaway, N.J., division), has overseen more than 20 virtual trade shows since 2003. "It started as a natural progression from webcasting," Kushner said. "By the end of 2002, when I came on board here, the webinar space was already pretty saturated." And he was concerned that b-to-b audiences were being bombarded with vendor-driven webinars.

"One of the reasons the virtual trade show appealed to me was because the model has a separation of church and state that's almost built in," Kushner said. He gave the editors at the various titles full authority over conference content and even turned down a potential sponsor that insisted its company's president should give the keynote in exchange for exhibiting.

In 2003, Kushner's division at Reed hosted three virtual trade shows. In 2004, it hosted six, and, in 2005, eight. "In 2006, we actually dropped a few—we're down to five this year," he said. "We decided to focus on the online trade shows that had proven to be the most sustainable."

Advanstar is pioneering a variation on the virtual trade show: the virtual career fair. Cary Lederman, associate publisher for staffing and recruitment for nursing and locum tenens (not permanently placed) physicians, organized the company's first virtual job fair for nurses in July. The event was associated with Advanstar's RN and Healthcare Traveler .

"We're doing another one at the end of October," he said, explaining that the two fairs were sold together from the start. "Multiple events make sense in recruiting because you never know when a given individual is going to consider a career change."

Offering two virtual job fairs upfront also "allowed us to offer a volume discount on both," he said. Another element of the value proposition was a certain amount of exclusivity. "We decided we wouldn't have more than 10 exhibitors—and we ended up with nine," he said. Based on the success of this year's fairs in terms of registrations and profitability, Lederman plans to conduct them quarterly next year.

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