Just as I was getting into some of the demos with the vendors, the group that had wanted me to review them pulled back their desire to do a show, so they said to put this on hold. I had gotten about half way through the vendor demos so I did get a chance to see some interesting information, but unfortunately I can’t spend the time now to do a thorough evaluation (too many other pressures).
I hope to return to it within the next few months. I think the group I was doing this for were not expecting costs to start in the $20K or $30K range, so it was a wake-up call (not to mention that I would bet costs would be higher than that).
Interestingly, I was surprised by the savviness of this group to recognize what they wanted even if they have never participated in a virtual trade show. Instead of merely saying that they wanted something like a live, on-site show (with presentations, booths, etc.), they were able to identify that they really wanted something that was an extension of their society/group web site or office, essentially providing an on-demand access to a group of vendors/exhibitors. Instead of thinking about a show once or twice a year, I think they were honing in on one of the efficiencies of the virtual trade show venue, that is the ability to collect a variety of companies/vendors for the benefit of the society/group’s customers (the members), for interaction in a real-time way. I see that some of the trade show vendors are thinking along the lines of integrating trade show processes into day-to-day business operations. I believe it is a smart move to project how the pieces of a virtual trade show (presentation, exhibit hall/vendor functionality, resource center, etc.) might be organized and assembled in different ways to support specific efficiencies, rather than being forced into a one-size-fits-all virtual trade show format.
Some Impressions Based on How Far I Got
In general, I believe there is a lot of similar functionality that really only can be evaluated during actual shows–everyone talks about the virtues of their platform, but I believe you need to see it under stress to find out how well they hold true. For example, I attended one show in which I consistently got disconnected and/or could not load content reliably. Admittedly, I have an internet connection barely better than tin cans and string (thanks, Verizon, which says my speeds meet min. limits, and yet you continue to tease me with your FiOS commercials not available in my area). However, with such a situation, what better time to find out about in-show customer support?
Which brings me to customer support. Virtually all of the vendors claimed they had great support, and that was something distinctive. It was amusing because they all claimed it as distinctive. Clearly this is a critical factor — what kind of support do you get before the show, to help make the show a success, what kind of support do your vendors get, what support do you get in-show, post-show, etc. This is a hard one to evaluate, but I would say that typical business procedures should help — get references you can speak with. I think it is essential to have marketing and technical support before, during, and after the show, even if costs extra.
In general, some vendors have a lot about their platform online, and some very little. In the cases of very little, I found out that it usually is a business decision not to post more. I can certainly understand that there is no need to tip off competitors about interesting developments or features, but I didn’t see any one feature that makes the platform clearly better than the others. In the current age of Internet-based research, having less info on the site I think ultimately hurts the platform vendor–there probably isn’t really a secret feature that the competition doesn’t know about.
That having been said, one important factor will be determining if you want your exhibitors to have their own editing abilities (InXpo, Unisfair, iConGo) or turn it over to the platform vendor (ON24, DesignReactor). Important Caveat: ON24 did say they are developing more self-service features, and I didn’t really get a chance to speak with the DesignReactor group about this area.
One thing I regret not getting a chance to delve into further is the potential for e-Commerce in these shows. If a platform had any e-Commerce features, it would be linking out somewhere to a shopping cart or other hand-wavy integration. I don’t think there is an easy answer here, but I can see that the ability to conduct business through a show, in a way that could integrate with an exhibitor’s online e-commerce functionality, or provide something during the period of the show, would make for an interesting competitive feature. The downside is that this may be an abyss, trying to grasp at something concrete when e-commerce functionality (specific way in which inventory, sales, etc. are processed) is typically not common across vendors.