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

virtual conference floor
Attendees wander the virtual floor just as they would at a real event

Virtual conferences are set to explode and steal a slice of the action away from real-life trade shows.

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.

'Next generation'

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.

IBM Virtual Green Data Center
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 networking.

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.


Replacement

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 show.

"It represents a sign of the times as we emerge from the recession," said AutoWeek magazine's Tony Foster.

virtual green car show
The 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.



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