Virtual events industry takes off

Marketplace Staff Dec 15, 2009

Virtual events industry takes off

Marketplace Staff Dec 15, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: The climate talks that are happening in Copenhagen do come with a little bit of irony attached. I mean, there they are, talking about global warming, after all the carbon-intensive flights to get there, the private limos whisking people to and fro, not to mention higher heating costs in a Danish winter.

In just another couple of years, though, this kind of international meeting could require no travel at all. Instead of planes, it’s going to be the virtual events industry that’s going to be taking off. Sally Herships has more.

SALLY HERSHIPS: Kim Stone works with Planview, a software company. Every year it hosts a conference for its clients. It’s a big deal for the company. But this year…

KIM STONE: This year, we started hearing early that customers were getting their travel budgets cut, so they weren’t going to be able to fly or have a hotel budget.

Planview was in a tricky position. It had already booked a hotel for the conference in San Antonio.

STONE: What do you do? Do you have the customers, just a handful of them come, and it’s not quite what it usually is? Do you cancel entirely?

Stone says Planview didn’t do any of those things. Instead it postponed the hotel reservation and went online. This way clients could cut out the travel costs by sending pixels not people.

Stone sent me a screen shot from the event. It looks like a modern convention hall in 3D. There are avatars — mini-digital versions of you — standing around talking to other avatars. You can click and go into different rooms for presentations or talks, just like at a real conference. Inside you watch videos or chat online.

STONE: You are immersed in a Web browser, in an environment, it looks very 3D, it’s very interactive, you have multiple things going on the screen. You can see everyone who is in a particular room with you.

KARTIK HOSANAGER: Video conferencing and collaboration have really matured a lot over the last few years.

If you’re willing to pay. Kartik Hosanager is a professor of Internet Commerce at Wharton. I tried to interview him using a variety of free video conferencing services but none of them worked. That’s why he sounds so fuzzy.

HOSANAGER: Sally are you there?

Herships: I am, can you hear me?

HOSANAGER: If you are there, I am not able to hear you.

HERSHIPS: He can’t hear me.

So eventually we gave up. If this had been a real virtual meeting the organizers would have known exactly when we logged off. They can track your every move, which, spooky as it sounds, can be a big advantage — for a company.

HOSANAGER: Here you know exactly what sessions the person attended. How long did they stay in each session. When did we potentially lose the interest of this person.

Hosanager says this kind of information isn’t normally available at face-to-face meetings. It’s one of the reasons companies are more interested in virtual events. Unisfair, the company that ran Planview’s event, has doubled its list of big name clients from 45 to 90. And tech giant Cisco Systems is wrapping a $3 billion deal to buy the video conference firm Tandberg. But there are still advantages to meeting in person. I’ll let this British Airways ad do the talking.

BRITISH AIRWAYS AD: Nothing beats the face-to-face meeting, the firm handshake, the eye contact, getting your actual foot in the door.

How do you make up for not meeting in person?

Mark Jeffery is a technology professor at Northwestern University. He says if you use a high-end video conference it can absolutely make up for not being in the room.

MARK JEFFERY: The power of the really high definition systems is that you get to see what they’re feeling, their facial expressions, and it’s not uncommon in these kinds of meetings when it gets done that people actually stand up and wanna shake hands because you get fooled into that you’re actually there.

For companies looking to save this can sound like a great solution. So I asked Kim Stone if Planview will be going virtual from now on.

STONE: So here’s the thing. The feedback was really positive for a virtual event: “That was great: this was wonderful. Thank you so much for doing this. But next year, we’d like to see you in person.”

Internet commerce professor Kartik Hosanager says the key is to understand that virtual meetings are not meant to replace one-on-ones. Instead, he says, you should do some of both.

I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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