Virtual Events: Web-based Conventions
By Masha Zager
Is a virtual trade show for you? Thanks to a growing variety of virtual-event software vendors, a more receptive (and time-crunched) audience, and statistics that show
massive time and money savings for exhibitors, sponsors, and attendees alike, virtual events are becoming viable options for associations.
Last June, more than 14,000 commercial real estate professionals from all over the United States gathered for a week of networking and education. They heard presentations from 18 speakers, met colleagues who shared their interests, and visited more than 50 exhibitors’ booths to look at products ranging from technology to feng shui. Nine out of 10 found the convention so rewarding they said they would recommend it to others.
Best of all, when the meeting was over, there were no bills for airfare or hotel rooms.
The trade show, called CommercialSource.com, was an online event (the first of its kind) sponsored by the Realtors® Commercial Alliance, the commercial arm of the National Association of Realtors®.
To put on CommercialSource.com, which attracted 8,000 attendees, the Realtors® Commercial Alliance licensed technology from the Real Estate Cyber Society, a Boston-based company that also hosts its own real estate-related online shows. But there are a number of “virtual trade show” vendors whose software can easily be tailored for the real estate industry.
In the past several years, virtual trade shows, hosted at the organizer’s Web site, have become popular in many industries as substitutes for or adjuncts to the traditional trade show. Not only do they look very much like physical shows—down to the sponsors’ banners, door prizes, and literature racks in vendors’ booths—they also offer the same kinds of opportunities for attendees to learn about new ideas and products and for vendors to generate leads and promote their wares.
So how does it work? Speakers’ presentations are delivered by streaming audio and may be either live or recorded. Exhibitors are available by e-mail, telephone, or even live Internet chat to answer questions about their products. Most shows are time-limited, but organizers often leave a few of the show’s features up on the Web site for a longer period or even indefinitely.
So if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to witness it, does it make a sound? In other words, if you put on a virtual trade show, how do you quantify success? How do you know if your members participated?
The technology involved in a virtual event gathers information about attendees on their registration questionnaire. Attendees then create a unique password to enter the event. The event sponsor can track each time attendees logged on, what sessions they listened to, what expo booths they visited, what vendors’ Web sites they clicked through to, and even the messages or questions they posted in the networking chat rooms, blogs, and forums.
CommercialSource.com was a success by any measure, according to Peggy Luckey, manager of member services for the Realtors® Commercial Alliance. The post-event survey showed that attendees were pleased that they could visit the convention without disrupting their schedules or traveling, speakers appreciated the opportunity to draw large audiences with a 20-minute recorded presentation, and exhibitors averaged 700 to 1,000 leads for only 10 percent of the fees they would have paid at a physical show.
Is It Right For You?
Would a virtual trade show make sense for a state or local Realtors® association? Putting on a virtual event can be expensive—anywhere from $8,000 to $100,000, depending on the technology used, the scale of the show, and the services purchased. It also takes a considerable amount of work, though less than a physical show would require.
On the plus side, revenues from virtual trade shows are typically two to three times the investment, according to Gonen Ziv, senior vice president at Unisfair, a virtual trade show vendor headquartered in New York City. Exhibitors pay fees for virtual booths and leads, and companies that want added exposure pay additional fees for sponsorships. Some virtual trade show organizers also charge attendees, though this is less common.
The St. Louis Association of Realtors® hosted a virtual convention in 2003. By licensing prerecorded speaker presentations from the Real Estate CyberSpace Society and purchasing the society’s Association Virtual Convention Program, St. Louis offered members a free online event and sold 69 virtual booths. “We thought it would be an excellent way to get new vender information to our members without having to actually host a more expensive, traditional convention,” says Connie Chartier, the association’s vice president of public relations. “Unfortunately, although we did have some members log on to the site, the majority of members did not seem to be interested or perhaps were intimidated by the online process.” Chartier says her association will wait for members to become a little more comfortable with technology before trying a virtual convention again.
According to Angela Portosa , convention director at the Real Estate CyberSpace Society, associations can make good money with virtual events. “It depends on what vendors in your area are used to paying for exhibit space or sponsorship,” she says. But if an association sells three large booths at $1,000 each, 10 premium booths at $850 each, and 30 standard booths at $500 each, that generates $18,600 above the $7,900 cost of the CyberSpace Society’s program, which includes three national speaker presentations, registration, expo space, online promotional brochures, and an online association convention newsletter.
The Real Estate CyberSpace Society can also take a conventional event and recreate it online. “As long as the sessions are professionally recorded we can make any event virtual,” says Portosa, “which many organizations do as a complement to their live event to reach people who typically don’t attend live events.” Associations can sell virtual booth space as a premium above a conventional booth space and keep the virtual expo open indefinitely.
Virtual Doesn’t Mean Easy
Although putting on a virtual event can be labor intensive, all of the responsibility need not fall on your in-house staff. For example, the Realtors® Commercial Alliance used the services of a marketing consultant to sell exhibition space at CommercialSource.com, and split the revenues from the show with the consultant. In addition, technology vendors that provide trade-show software typically provide help with promotion, booth setup, and production of speakers’ presentations. Some of these services are part of the basic package, but vendors can usually handle additional conference-organizing tasks for an extra fee.
At the end of the day, virtual trade shows can help you provide services to more of your members. Because it is easier and less costly to attend a virtual show than a physical show, you can expect much higher attendance levels than at live events. According to Jack Peckham, president of the Real Estate CyberSpace Society, physical shows typically draw 5 percent of an organization’s membership, while virtual shows typically draw 28 percent.
Ultimately, a virtual trade show may also help you market your live events, says Richard Feldman, head of the virtual trade show division at iCongo, a Needham, Massachusetts-based software developer. An annual meeting or convention fades from members’ consciousness during the intervening months; holding online events in the interim can keep members involved and build organic growth from year to year.
Real Estate’s Most Successful Virtual Event
More than 60 Realtor® associations and MLSs are sponsors of the National Real Estate On-Line Convention and Exposition, Feb. 20-16, 2007, sponsored by the Real Estate Cyberspace Society. The society is a professional real estate organization with over 9,000 members and 120 chapters worldwide.
Sponsorship is free for associations, real estate schools, and other organizations that promote the event to their constituencies. In return, sponsors’ names appear at the online show and they have a way to offer their audience access to a free education event, says Convention Director Angela Portosa.
The sixth annual completely virtual event will feature nearly 30 sessions, and organizers hope to attract more than 40,000 real estate professionals. The sessions are prerecorded 28-minute interviews that the society conducts throughout the year as part of its Real Estate CyberSpace Radio program.
After 20 years as the education director for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors®, Portosa says a balanced program of sales tips, technology training, motivational messages, and industry visionaries predicting trends is what attracts real estate professionals.
The Real Estate CyberSpace Society expects to sell between 200 and 300 booths in 2007. The broad projection is because virtual exhibiting isn’t for everyone, Portosa says. “Some companies exhibit and find it’s not what they expected. Others, particularly those with a product or service to sell via the Internet, do extremely well.” In 2006, nearly 40,000 expo attendees made 28,244 requests for additional information from exhibitors who gave the event a 93.3 percent satisfaction rating in a post-event poll.