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Welcome to the New Business Conference... It's Online

Posted by Barry Silverstein on December 3, 2010 04:00 PM

At the intersection of a flagging economy and the rapid growth of the virtual world, you'll find an emerging business venue — the online event. 

Business conferences and trade shows that used to attract thousands of attendees to a city hotel are increasingly being replaced by their virtual counterparts, reports the New York Times.

Market Research Media indicates that virtual events have doubled in occurrence from 2008 to 2009, and the market will likely grow to $18.6 billion per year in five years.

"Many trade shows are now hybrids, combining virtuality with physical features like exhibition booths," according to the Times. Those in the computer industry undoubtedly remember Comdex, the leading trade show that year after year turned Las Vegas into a haven for hundreds of thousands of techies. Comdex discontinued its physical operations in 2003, but just last month "ComdexVirtual," an online version of the show, debuted.

An all-virtual event, according to Joerg Rathenberg, marketing VP for virtual event software developer Unisfair, often experiences higher participation rates than live events. Attendees have the added advantage of storing content for viewing at a later time. Today's virtual events can include live online presentations, question-and-answer forums and even "networking lounges" that replace the cocktail party-style schmoozing long associated with industry shows.

Larger companies are using virtual events to replace expensive meetings. IBM, for example, runs a "Smarter Transportation Summit" for that industry, one of eighty virtual events the company has run in 2010. IBM also this year instituted a "continuing virtual environment" that allows it to interact with clients and prospective clients on an on-going basis. Hilton is another company using this concept for its food and beverage managers. Michael Doyle, executive director of an industry group called the Virtual Edge Institute, tells the Times that "perpetual platforms are going to be a major trend in the next few years."

Some companies, however, think all-virtual is a little too impersonal. Networking company Cisco Systems tried an all-virtual global sales meeting in 2009, but this year combined online with physical elements, such as local viewing rooms. Angela Smith, a Cisco senior manager, explains: "We felt if we got people together locally it would help us achieve two goals that were difficult to accomplish virtually — motivation and recognition."

Nonetheless, with technology as an enabler, it appears that more and more business meetings and conferences, especially those with an international audience, are making the move to the desktop. Guess that could mean less junkets next year... 

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