Partnering face-to-face

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The virtual companion to the face-to-face Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) may be only 1 year old but already organizers can point to markers of the semiannual event's rapid evolution. Exhibitors have moved branding efforts beyond virtual booths, sponsoring everything from a conference hall where attendees access educational presentations to a lounge where they interact with their peers. An eye-catching blimp will carry a logo across the welcome page when the event goes live again this month. “Initially we had to cajole [exhibitors] into trying this with us,” said Eric Schlett, VP-group publisher at PennWell Corp., the company that publishes Fire Engineering and produces the virtual and Indianapolis-based FDIC events. “We came in with discount rates. Now we have premium positions, and they're fighting for those positions.” Fire professionals also have shown increased interest. Attendance at the second virtual FDIC event, held in February, rose to 2,278, up more than 30% from the inaugural show held last June. The virtual event has shown no sign of eating into face-to-face attendance or exhibitor numbers, Schlett said, and organizers are looking at scheduling a third online component. “For PennWell, it [provides] additional avenues to present products and solutions to the audience,” said Tom Cintorino, senior VP-digital media. The company hosts a live, two-day virtual event that allows attendees to use interactive chat to communicate with booth representatives, other attendees and educational speakers. After the live portion of the event, attendees can log on and visit event archives. The platform provides exhibitors with detailed information about how attendees access the site. It also helps organizers build a case for exhibiting: Attendees spent an average of 5.86 hours on the site in February, for example, and exhibitors averaged 657 leads. This year, bottom-line benefits became a key selling point, Schlett said. PennWell approached exhibitors about the online event as they discussed the renewal of face-to-face contracts at the Indianapolis show. That show saw only a 5% dip in attendance despite the sour economy, a turnout that boosted exhibitor confidence in the FDIC brand, Schlett said. “It made it that much easier to sell the June virtual event.” The online forum has additional selling points. The company places a cap on the number of exhibitors at the virtual event, promising visibility to the 20 to 25 exhibitors on the show floor. “We try to limit it to one [virtual] room,” Schlett said. “We're toying with the idea of opening it up, but the bigger the show hall is, the impressions per minute are going to go down. We want our numbers to increase attendee-wise before we do that.” Visibility means a lot to companies accustomed to vying for attention among more than 900 exhibitors in Indianapolis. DRIFIRE, a flame resistant performance garment company, linked its participation in the February virtual event to a 30% boost in both traffic and leads at the subsequent Indianapolis show, said Stephanie Youker, director of marketing. “When we do the virtual show, we target the fire departments,” Youker said. “At the physical show, we are able to meet with distributors and buyers, other partners that we may not have talked to.” The virtual event provides unique branding opportunities. PennWell allows exhibitors to contribute to educational content—a chance to build thought leadership that organizers do not permit in Indianapolis. The company looks to the success of its face-to-face course offerings when determining the best educational material and speakers to feature online. Not all content translates well to a virtual environment, said Robert Halton, editor in chief at Fire Engineering. “We select diligently, because we have presenters who do wonderfully with a live audience but don't have that same persona online,” he said. “We spend a great deal of time with the presenters and give them tips and pointers as to how to better connect their material with people who can't see them delivering it.”
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