Virtual trade shows stage a comeback

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One of the foundations of b-to-b marketing is the trade show. And while there have been many attempts to recreate the trade show experience online, the concept in most quarters has failed to take off.

But one Chicago area-based company is having real success with virtual trade show events-including a strong business-to-business focus.

InXpo has produced online trade shows mainly for large distribution companies such as C&S Wholesale Grocers (grocery), Emery-Waterhouse Co. (hardware) and Eby-Brown (convenience stores). InXpo runs the technology platform and partners with the show hosts to run the online events. The shows typically bring together retail attendees with manufacturers that host virtual trade show booths, much like real-world trade shows. Such elements as keynote addresses and educational tracks round out the online events.

By focusing on industry b-to-b events, InXpo's shows are often more than just online meet-and-greets. Retailers, distributors and manufacturers leverage the events to conduct real business, using the online order-entry system InXpo has built into its virtual trade show environment to negotiate and place large purchase orders.

"It wasn't that people didn't want virtual trade shows [a few years ago]. It was a good idea, [the Internet] just wasn't ready for it," said Malcolm Lotzof, CEO of InXpo.

Lotzof said the virtual trade shows his company enables really took off when show hosts stopped thinking about them not as replacements for live shows but as complements.

"The huge difference for clients that are used to putting on physical events is, let's say, they can reach 10,000 people," Lotzof said. "They look at their market and say that's only 10,000 people out of 500,000 people in my association, or 1 million people in my industry. [With a physical trade show], they can't serve their whole market. If you combine a physical event and an online event, you can now reach those other people in the audience."

InXpo's online shows simulate a real-world show as closely as they can. There are trade show floors, vendor booths, conference and educational sessions, keynote addresses and more. For some of its shows, InXpo even "pipes in" hallway noise to simulate a live event. Visitors can attend sessions, talk with vendor reps at the booth and even chat with one another. "The metaphor of the trade show is easy for people to comprehend," Lotzof said.

But online also brings some important differences. For one, InXpo helps vendors-with some limits-track everything that is going on in the show and at their booth. In some instances, marketers can know how long an attendee visited their booth, what presentations they attended and more. Perhaps more important, vendors can get a real-time tally of deals made at the show and use those data to adjust their pricing or discounting strategies on the fly to get the end results they are looking for.

And then there's cost; an online show typically costs marketers about 20% of the cost of traditional shows, Lotzof said.

At the virtual show

Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., has run several virtual shows with InXpo, and they have become more important because of physical devastation in the area from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said Clayton Lester, VP-corporate marketing and special services.

The association is hosting its first full-scale online food show in September, a four-day event following the one-year anniversary of Katrina.

The summer and early fall is hurricane season in Lousiana, and putting on a live show is risky, Lester said. By comparison, an online show is quick and easy to implement, he said.

"Information is provided in real time to the retailer, the vendor and the wholesale distributor," Lester said. "I can watch the dollars click by 24/seven . . . I can see the sales, who's online [and] who's buying, and communicate with our members and help them out with their buy."

While the grocers' show is invitation-only, InXpo sibling company eComXpo is hosting a free virtual trade show in October open to the general public. Focused on search and affiliate marketing, the event connects vendors with businesses looking for help with their online marketing efforts. Google, MSN and Yahoo! are the anchor sponsors. Booth prices top out at $12,000 but vendors can have a presence starting at $5,000. Overall, the show is expected to have about 230 exhibitors and 7,000 attendees, making it one of the largest e-commerce trade shows, said John Grosshand-ler, eComXpo event director.

Data captured from eComXpo booth visits are the "secret sauce" for making the virtual shows a success, Grosshandler said. "Digital capture is the big missing link," he said. "What we do is package up all the data . . . what attendees looked at and talked about in one easy-to-view data portal. It makes it much easier to convert leads into sales."

Yahoo! Search Marketing has participated as a vendor in several eComXpo shows, said Patrizio Spagnoletto, Yahoo! marketing director. As a b-to-b marketer, Spagnoletto said he sees online events as a good extension of both live shows and online marketing efforts. "Like any trade show event, we focus on a balance of conversion and awareness," he said.

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