Virtual events: Did you know you can pay per attendee and obtain over 100% increase in event engagement?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Trade shows are going virtual, meaning it impacts business owners and public relations. Back in the 90s, there were a couple of young Englishmen in America running a service called the Virtual Press Office and trying to convince companies about the benefits of not traveling, of accountability of digital, and of smaller companies being able to compete with larger ones. Unconsciously, this was also the start of the shift towards sustainability, especially when it comes to trade shows, because anyone that’s been to a trade show knows that these are really expensive events from an environmental point of view as well.. The challenge was that they were a bit too early, possibly 20 years too early. There were issues of bandwidth, processing speed on the computers themselves, and people still liked to travel and they could. Of course, COVID has changed all of that. COVID and today’s technology has turned trade shows, conferences, and corporate events virtual, but they’re not just going virtual out of necessity. They’re also going virtual, because going online offers a great number of benefits, as well as multiple ways to leverage and select the right trade shows to go to or even to host your own. 

Trade shows then and now

20 years ago, virtual events were mocked and laughed at, says Jeremy King, the CEO of Festival of Media and Media Marketing Global, and also a member of the Virtual Events Institute Advisory Board. In America, they started this Virtual Events Institute to gather all of the players providing the platforms and the event organizers. Jeremy King went on to say that, "It’s great to see virtual events forced back onto the agenda. Now is their time to shine and forge a legacy way beyond the current situation. It’s so much more than rules and governance. It’s about human behavior and virtual events in tandem with live experiences, which will be here to stay." 

Anyone that’s been to the Geneva Motor Show knows that there are acres and acres of basically buildings that are temporary. It’s a massive waste of resources, because most of these stands get trashed again, since it’s cheaper to build and destroy than to ship, build, and ship. Clearly, some of these big trade shows, especially ones that were hosted by trade associations may be going out of business due to the cost and the money they might have lost from booking venues this year and events being cancelled. This proves that there’s a really great benefit on many levels to going virtual, but from a public relations point of view, how can business owners take advantage?

Back then, people would go to trade shows and be speculative, maybe do some prospecting and arrange meetings in advance, but a lot of the trade show work back in the 90s and 2000s was to check-in, register, get the big fat directory, sit down with a cup of coffee, circle all the companies that you hadn’t heard of that you wanted to go and find, and then to traipse around the trade show floor hoping the marketing manager, the sales director, or whoever it was you were trying to see would be there. On the last few days of any trade show, people were looking pretty ragged, and may well even have gone home if the show was not good enough, so it would sometimes be a waste of time. Those that have tried to host events also know that there’s so much planning involved, especially when it comes to the logistics of renting a venue, organising the event, arranging parking for the attendees, the food and drinks, the security, the accommodation, and more. Because of this, companies may have full-time in-house event teams, which is expensive for any business. Trade show and conference management time was really spent on logistics, and less on sales and business development.

Fast forward to the sweet spot of technology and the last decade of the internet, the last decade of mobile phone technology, the last three or four years with high-quality cameras, and now, products and services like Zoom are demonstrating that people are familiar with the practice and that the technology is readily available for everybody to participate. The co-founder of LinkedIn, Eric Ly, believes that there’s a great opportunity in the virtual and hybrid approach to events, and he’s excited to play a role in advancing the cause. He’s a member now of this Virtual Events Institute Advisory Board.

One of EASTWEST PR’s clients is Rosti, a Scandinavian company with manufacturing capabilities in plastics in China and Malaysia. A lot of their customer base is in America, so they’re going to participate in a virtual event hosted by Assembly Magazine, which is the leading magazine for procurement. Because of the way that events are taking place now, one can participate without all of the costs and hassle of actually flying to America. The client who is based in the UK and Malaysia can have a presence equal to a company that’s in Minneapolis or Washington, DC. This Assembly Mag event is going to be hosted in October, and it’s the first time they’ve done it as a fully online event. While the organisers of the Geneva Motor Show, which is cancelled for 2020 and 2021, are declaring bankruptcy, the flexible entrepreneurial event organizers like the Assembly Mag publishers have built a fantastic community, because they’ve still got the readership, and they’re making use of platforms like Intrado. On their virtual platform, companies like Rosti can display their company name, contact information, product categories, hyperlink logos, company description, PDFs, company product videos, location, meeting scheduling with attendees, on-demand access, and exposure all the way through 2021. Also, organisers are starting to add features like email registrations pre- and post-event. There’s a longevity to an online event that never existed when people had to move in and out of a venue within a period of three to four days. 

Let Swapcard and Intrado help you during trade shows

In the traditional world, attending a trade show often accompanied the opportunity to speak at that event, and PR firms would be eager to get clients to speak at these events, because the world’s media would also be there. Now, the media could still be at the event without traveling. They could see and go to a great deal more press briefings and interviews than they could when they had to physically go from place to place. There are companies now like Swapcard that are providing amazing, big platforms. Intrado is another one. It was formerly West Communications, and they’re hosting these multiple events too.

Photo from Swapcard

The role that public relations firms then have is to help clients understand which platforms are going to deliver the best engagement and the best delivery. Some of these platforms like Swapcard, which is apparently trusted by 1,000 leading conference and exhibition organisers, have conferences, exhibitions, corporate events, and Congress platforms. They offer agendas, live streaming, audience response including polls and surveys, networks, one-to-one videos, group chats, and more. They understand that there are some areas where events have structured content and opportunities to present products and services. It’s like having a trade show floor with booths and people walking around, but there will be an offline aspect too, such as conferences taking place in working groups. There will no longer be those large number of one-on-one meetings that people would be having in cafes, hotels, or business centers. 

The business model has clearly evolved. In the old days, companies would need to book a space at a trade show, and the price of that would vary depending on the booth’s size. It was very inflexible and costly, and if you didn’t get a good spot, less people would see your booth and interact with you. With Swapcard, anyone can actually experience having their own trade show. One could organise a conference for their sales teams or dealers. Swapcard offers a free networking app, which allows event networking, onboarding emails, registration, email and chat support, and a free API in case you want to plug that into your website, so it’s very powerful. They also have an event app and matchmaking service powered by AI, and this is just $2 per attendee which is great, because when you go to a traditional conference or exhibition, you pay the same price. Whether it was a good show or a bad show, you pay by space. But actually, no one really measures the performance of a show by space. It’s by number of leads. So for just $2 per attendee, you could host an event yourself and invite people to it.

They also offer services for organizing an event, which includes what they call an Exhibitor Package. It offers Matchmaking ($49/exhibitor), Lead Capture ($99/exhibitor), and Exhibitor Center ($19/exhibitor). This is a wonderfully scalable service, which means that if you want to organise a niche event or a new startup event, you can do that without booking an expensive venue months in advance, without needing to make commitments to vendors like contractors, electricians, so on, and not being taken hostage by local contractors is a massive benefit. 

Alternatives to Swapcard

Swapcard organized an event by a group called Hello Tomorrow. They had 9,413 connections made through the event app, and over 104 attendees created their own schedules. However, Swapcard is not by any means the only provider. There are others with names like Airmeet, BigMarker, ConnexMe, Boomset, Attendify, all with different levels of services, connectivity, integration, and so on. For those looking to attend events or help clients attend events, looking at the nature of the platform is now a little bit like looking at the venue. People used to have to look at the venue and assess the facility for move in or take down. They had to look at the venue for proximity to the airport, to the storage facilities, or to the hotel, and also look at things like breakout rooms. These new platforms, like Airmeet, BigMarker, and so on, are creating virtual spaces, which are then infinitely flexible.

SmartXpo is another platform that is for the event organizers themselves. It provides analytics to boost the performance and profitability of a particular trade show, conference, or event. They have a suite of applications which analyze the performance of these different events and services that you might provide to clients. Interestingly, they also provide the facility for automated price optimization, budgeting, forecasting, and margin improvement.

Photo from SmartXpo

A big anxiety for trade show organisers is selling enough space and making enough to get the venue prices covered. They’d set prices based on the cost of the venue, not on the price and affordability or competitive landscape of other shows. Now, event organisers can set the price according to the demand, not according to the the cost of putting on the event. That’s an amazing opportunity for smaller companies to organise events where an industry doesn’t currently have them. And evidently, there are many new events and categories that have arisen due to COVID or sustainability, where there were not events before but there could be, and these platforms enable smart and entrepreneurial event organisers to organize those. 

As business people and entrepreneurs, you can start to target events to attend that are well-run, have a great community, and are on multifunctional platforms. It also means that you can host your own events that can be scalable and help build your own brand and community in the niche sectors you’re operating in, or to hold conferences for business partners or staff without all the costs of people flying, venue rentals, and the disruption that those trade shows used to cause to business continuity. The beauty of all these virtual events and platforms is that you can leverage events without traveling, without the expenses, and without the inconvenience. Moreover, there are analytics, because there’s a digital footprint, and there’s content that can be amplified. On the downside, there’s no traveling, no nice hotel nights away from everybody, and enjoying room service. There’s no buying meals you might not have when you’re at home. There’s also no way to blame the trade show organisers for the lack of results. Digital once again brings great opportunities to get the company noticed but more accountability as well.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Industry UK

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