Virtual world makes Dow exhibit a reality

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Objective: Dow Chemical Co. usually begins preparations for major expositions and trade shows a full year in advance. But it didn't start preparing for the 2009 National Plastics Exposition, held in June, until last January. As a major sponsor of the exposition, Dow needed to fill a 36,000-square-foot ballroom with its customer hospitality and business center. Faced with a huge empty space and working six months behind schedule, the company turned to Scott and Miller Group, a b-to-b marketing communications firm that had helped Dow design its trade show setups in the past.

But for this assignment, Scott and Miller quickly realized that the immense size of the ballroom presented some unique challenges.

“It was such a huge space that there was no way in flat designs to show them what we were doing,” said Rusty Beckham, an account manager at Scott and Miller.

Strategy: Instead, the agency used Second Life, the virtual 3D, online world, to create a more effective design process. In Second Life, Scott and Miller built a virtual replica of the ballroom (based on floor plans from Lakeshore Exhibit Services). This way, Dow personnel and others were able to log in to Second Life and explore the virtual room.

Once plugged in, users could alter elements of the virtual space, which was built at 1:1 scale, from carpet colors to booth locations, allowing designers to experiment with different ideas instantly and without restriction.

“[Second Life] gave us a 3D feel for how the space and our design looked and flowed together,” said Greg Baldwin, Dow Basic Plastics communications manager, about the ability to experience the room as a whole in 3D. “We could conceptualize much better than from a flat layout.”

That ability to see the room in its entirety was critical to selling design plans to an upper management unaccustomed to conceptualizing from static models, Baldwin said. “You're able to show them exactly how everything is going to look.”

Second Life also introduced another key benefit to the project: the ability to work remotely and obviate face-to-face meetings. With Dow headquartered in Houston, Scott and Miller based in Saginaw, Mich., and the venue in Chicago, meeting over the phone while logged into Second Life made the design process more efficient and helped finish what had been a yearlong project in six months.

Results: Despite the tight design and production schedule, Dow and Scott and Miller managed to finish the ballroom in time for the expo. Complete with meeting rooms, workstations, e-kiosks, lounge and dining areas, and a full bar, the real-world Dow customer center welcomed almost 1,400 guests throughout the weeklong event.

While Beckham said it's difficult put a specific ROI on the project and calculate exactly what Dow saved by using Second Life, he also said the quality of the finished customer center would not have been possible without the virtual world.

“We worked smarter and made better decisions, and the end product was definitely of higher quality [because of Second Life],” he said.

Baldwin agreed, saying the customer center's six-month construction would not have been possible without the use of the virtual world.

“When I walked into the actual event, [it was like], ‘Man, I've been here before. This is perfect,' “ he said.

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