Slow and steady

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UBM's Everything Channel CEO Bob Faletra once waited for two hours just to catch a cab at the Computer Dealers Exposition, a now-defunct face-to-face event heralded in its prime as the largest trade show that served the information technology channel.

“Comdex was wonderful and painful at the same time,” he said.

And it was nothing like the virtual resurrection of the event that Everything Channel launched in November.

Comdex Virtual trumped organizer and exhibitor expectations, drawing almost 4,500 attendees who averaged more than five hours in the virtual environment. But attendees looking for the spectacle of the face-to-face Comdex did not find it. Everything Channel took the brand back to its roots, introducing a format that emphasized focused content and virtual business cards over champagne parties.

The event's muted demeanor signifies more than the change of venue. It reflects the approach Everything Channel is taking to the virtual market. “You don't get there overnight,” Faletra said. “If you try to do too much at once, you can't execute.”

It's a measured approach that many organizers are taking to market.

Interest in virtual events has soared, catalyzed not only by the evolution of the technology itself, and a sour economy that dampened travel and pressured marketing budgets, but also by the drive of events producers to be first.

“Are you going to wait and see if virtual events work or are you going to lead the charge?” Faletra asked.

Almost half of the exhibition managers who responded to an online survey of 237 event-marketing professionals conducted online by George P. Johnson and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in May and June indicated that they used virtual events including webinars. That number stood at just 16% in the year-earlier survey.

Organizers are experimenting with such formats as stand-alone virtual events, hybrid complements and perpetual environments that could become the next-generation answer to the website, said Cathy Breden, executive director of CEIR.

“People are testing the waters,” she said. “I'm seeing more of that. Organizers also are experiencing that these virtual events are not inexpensive, and they can take as much time, if not more time, in the beginning as a face-to-face event.”

But early challenges have not curbed growth.

Companies like ALM, Everything Channel and Hanley Wood have invested heavily in the medium. Reed Exhibitions and the Vision Council launched Virtual Vision Expo in November, drawing more than 500 attendees to an event that complemented the face-to-face International Vision Expo.

“You're going to see a number of publishing companies that have been doing pilots come into the market,” said Michael Doyle, executive director of Virtual Edge, a nonprofit supporting the virtual event industry. “We're also seeing the association market really start to pick up now.”

The association market, the largest segment of the trade show industry, has lagged other sectors, but a mandate to serve members despite economic difficulties has driven many organizers to step into the virtual arena, he said.

The American Institute of Architects introduced a virtual complement to its national convention last year, offering 13 online credit courses at no charge, said Christopher Gribbs, managing director of conventions.

Almost 12,000 members registered for the on-demand courses, which continue to be available, and the association decided to expand the number of classes in a paid virtual environment this year.

Only 680 people registered.

“It caused us to pause and look at the business model we're using,” Gribbs said.

But the setback did not dissuade the association from moving a virtual strategy forward.

Gribbs instead is looking at the possibility of developing a paid perpetual classroom environment and is expanding marketing through a new partnership with Hanley Wood.

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