When the economy took a turn for the worse, many companies began taking a hard look at virtual environments as an alternative to live events, or at least as a part of the package. But if the down economy hadn’t been enough to convince companies about the benefits of virtual, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull that erupted unexpectedly this spring and caused air travel to come to a halt because of a menacing ash cloud served as yet another reminder.
During the eruption, many companies turned to Telepresence, videoconferencing and WebEx to conduct their business. But for sales conferences, trade shows and other large-scale events, it wasn’t that simple. Unless companies had prepared materials and lined up content for a virtual contingency plan, building a last-minute virtual platform wasn’t possible. Despite the bad news, the natural disaster sparked new conversations about virtual events as an important part of the overall event strategy.
“Interest in virtual events has risen this year due to the Icelandic volcano eruption and the resulting increase in flight cancellations across Europe,” says Jonathan Bennett, co-ceo at London-based RaptureWorld. SCM World, a RaptureWorld company, hired San Francisco-based virtual provider ON24 prior to the eruption to switch its Chief Supply Chain Officer Conference from a physical to a virtual platform. When the volcano unleashed its fury, they were home free, thanks to their pre-planning.
However, switching to virtual altogether doesn’t work for all companies—some prefer the benefits of a hybrid model that combines live and virtual components. According to Mike Westcott, vp-marketing at Chicago-based virtual platform provider InXpo, there’s been significant growth in requests for hybrid events. “By far the largest percentage of what we do, like the Cisco GSX Meeting, is a hybrid,” he says.
InXpo also recently built the platform for Chicago-based UBM Studio’s Virtual Business Continuity Center, which is an always-on virtual facility that includes an auditorium with an option for live chats, a resource library that hosts presentations, help booths for technical support and other interactive tools for emailing, blogging, one-on-one chats and more. Companies can customize the template with their branding and use it on an on-demand basis, given they have all of their content and speakers ready to go.
“Companies should be doing virtual anyway not just as a contingency plan, but because it makes business sense,” says Steve Arend, chief innovation officer at UBM. “When people attend an event, they don’t consume all the information, so this way they can go back and learn more in the virtual world.”
Menlo Park, CA-based platform provider Unisfair now offers a subscription-based customizable virtual platform package that companies can sign up for and access year-round. Similar to UBM’s virtual center, it eliminates the scrambling companies faced when the volcano erupted. Increasingly, virtual is becoming part of the event strategy, not just the solution for a doomsday scenario.
“We’re seeing more interest in virtual events, not just as a replacement for when a company has no money, but because it’s a completely separate channel for the customer,” says Joerg Rathenberg, vp-marketing at Unisfair. “Customers will expect that moving forward, because it’s very practical.” EM