Page last updated at 08:47 GMT, Tuesday, 20 April
2010 09:47 UK
Rise of the virtual conference
By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley
Attendees wander the virtual floor just as they would at a real
Virtual conferences are
set to explode and steal a slice of the action away from real-life trade
A report last month by Market Research
Media said the marketplace will grow to $18.6bn over the next five years.
One of the big players in the field, ON24
said their survey showed 87% of 10,000 executives ready to go virtual.
"It is still an evangelical market, but
the recession has helped businesses see the value of virtual
environments," said ON24 founder Sharat Sharan.
"Think about all those savings from hotel
rooms to airfares for attendees to meals and conference space. One of our
biggest technology clients had a sales meeting earlier this year where
they generally spend $5m (£3.2m). They spent a tenth of that by holding a
virtual conference," Mr Sharat told BBC News.
Second Life is one of the best known names
in the world of virtual reality but the companies that flocked there to
set up businesses and storefronts had very limited success.
Two years ago Second Life created an
enterprise group to better cater to business and has over 1,400
organisations as users.
Companies like IBM rushed to set up on Second Life when it started
ON24 has over 750 clients from Fortune 500
companies but made its name as a webcasting company following the dot.com
implosion and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
"What is going on in the virtual
conference market is not unlike the downturn in 2001 and the 9/11 attacks
when web meetings became the big thing because no one wanted to fly and
companies were cutting budgets."
Now both Second Life and ON24, along with
Unisfair, are forging ahead in developing virtual-meetings software aimed
at recreating the real trade show or conference experience.
Attendees check in and get their 'goody
bag' full of virtual goods and brochures that they can look at anytime.
There are show booths to attend where participants can download company
information, watch demonstrations or chat online to sales reps.
Conference goers can also attend keynote
sessions, submit questions live for real-time answers and listen to
lectures on podcast and PowerPoint presentation all without packing a
suitcase or breaking a sweat to catch a flight.
There are also facilities for virtual
Another benefit, said the companies, is
the ability to know exactly who has come to your booth, how long they
stayed, what products interested them and what questions they asked. This
data makes follow up conversations more productive.
"It is just a matter of time before the
virtual events world and the trade show world merge to create the next
generation of events - a hybrid of the old and the new," said Miroslaw
Nowak of Market Research Media.
ON24's Mr Sharat agreed.
"Businesses are getting more and more
comfortable with the virtual world. Their customers, employees and
partners are already living in that environment thanks to social networks
and even email.
"The need for face-to-face meetings is
always going to exist -however you will see a lot more virtual
interactions," he said.
One industry that is dipping its toe into
the virtual world is that of the car show. Later this year AutoWeek
magazine will stage what it said is the world's first virtual green car
"It represents a sign of the times as we
emerge from the recession," said AutoWeek magazine's Tony Foster.
virtual green car show will take place this September
"This also shows how committed the
automotive industry is to the green movement. From an environmental
standpoint, the typical virtual show eliminates about 3,300 tonnes of
carbon emissions and saves 17,000 trees," Mr Foster told BBC News.
He added that in terms of dollars and
cents, a car manufacturer will have an average budget of around "seven
figures to have a presence at a major auto show" whereas the green car
show will cost around $30,000 (£20,135).
Jon Alain Guzik from DriverSide travels to
around 200 product launches a year and in 2009 clocked up 114,000 miles as
a result. He said while he can see the benefits of a virtual conference
that plugs insurance, he cannot see it working for cars.
"I just don't think this idea will work
because cars are a tactile commodity. You need to touch, feel and get
behind the wheel. Nothing can replace that experience," said Mr Guzik.