Virtual Conferences' Home Advantage

Companies like Cisco Systems are hosting virtual events to attract participants who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend

Last month, during a conference in Honolulu that was sponsored by Cisco Systems (CSCO), as many as one-third of the 3,000 attendees didn't set foot on the Polynesian island. Instead, they took part online, in a virtual conference created by Cisco along with Unisfair, a specialist in virtual events.

Cisco had high hopes for the summit, convened on behalf of the thousands of partners responsible for more than 80% of its sales. Cisco wants these so-called channel partners to help it meet a target of boosting revenue by 12% to 17% in coming years, and its research suggests more collaboration means more sales. A big way to get people to work together is luring them to conferences like this—even if they can only participate virtually.

Growing interest in virtual conferences is fueling a miniboom for companies like Unisfair. The Menlo Park (Calif.) company has arranged more than 400 events since it started in 2002. "It took us almost four years to get to that first 200, and in the last 12 months we've basically doubled in size," says Brent Arslaner, vice-president for marketing at Unisfair. Companies spend nearly $32 billion on conferences annually, according to the most recent figures from Meetings & Conventions magazine. Of that amount, 58% goes to hotels, food, and beverages. As the economy slows and fuel costs rise, some conference planners are looking for ways to reduce travel expenses, even as they find ways to encourage participation among an increasingly global workforce.

Following the Sun

The strategy paid off at the Cisco Virtual Partner Summit, which drew participants from more than 90 countries, including parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Cisco took a follow-the-sun approach, starting early with speakers from Asia, moving to European speakers later, and ending the day with speakers from the Americas. Exhibitors showcased their wares in fully staffed virtual booths.

An added benefit: The conference can live on long after the physical booths have been torn down. "We get almost twice as many people after a virtual event to view content that's been saved in a virtual environment," says Andrew Sage, a Cisco vice-president for marketing, whose avatar, or graphical online representation, wore a lei as he greeted attendees.

Stratus Technologies, a high-end server maker, held a virtual summit in April in hopes of attracting C-level executives and a higher number of international attendees than would be able to attend a physical conference. "When I talk to [chief information officers and chief executive officers], they can't leave their offices for three days just because Stratus, IBM (IBM), or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) is having an event," says Sue Lawrence-Longo, Stratus' vice-president for worldwide marketing. Virtual conferences also cost less. Lawrence-Longo says she spent about $100,000 with Unisfair, or about one-fifth as much as she would have spent on an event in a more traditional venue—say, the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.

Other companies that offer virtual trade-show software or services include Campbell (Calif.)-based Design Reactor; GoExhibit, headquartered in Huntley, Ill.; and InXpo, based in Chicago.

Ironing Out the Kinks

Lawrence-Longo and others say arranging a virtual conference is every bit as much work as putting together a physical one. And the stakes can be even higher when it comes to online logistics, such as virtual world slide show presentations. "There really are quite a number things that have to work on the day of the event, such as making sure recorded sessions fit with the live Q&A," says Roy Young, president of online publishing firm MarketingProfs, which spent about $50,000 recently for a one-day virtual event that didn't go off hitch-free. "Unisfair has done well, but we'll hope that many of the kinks will be ironed out by the time we do our next one," Young says. "It's not perfect."

Cisco and other users of virtual conferencing technology hasten to add that virtual events are a nice addition, but hardly a substitution for meeting in person. "A lot of business is still done on that golf course," says Lawrence-Longo, who was nevertheless pleased that 600 senior-level executives from 54 countries attended the Stratus event.

Cisco has been pleased enough with results of virtual conferences that it's using Unisfair technology for collaboration after the conference ends. A Cisco-commissioned study by Illuminas Research found that partners who team up with others developed deeper customer relationships, won larger projects, and acquired new customers and increased revenue as a result of their collaboration. That's part of the reason Cisco built Cisco Partners Space, a standing virtual world where companies can team up on projects.

Virtual conference technology helps Cisco establish closer ties with its partners as well. For instance, the existing relationships made it easy for Cisco to put together a virtual conference on green tech for 50 channel partners in just a week. "I just had to send an e-mail, and participants only had to click on the link," says Sage, "They didn't even have to register."

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