As companies develop more sophisticated Internet-based services, many fear that the virtual trade show will replace the "real" event. After all, with a few clicks of the mouse, an attendee can now do everything from drop in on a few educational sessions, to visit exhibits, request literature, and put in an order with an exhibitor. Why would anyone need to visit the show?

While virtual shows will certainly significantly alter the trade show experience for attendees, it won't be because attendees no longer need to visit the real event. Instead, the virtual show has radically expanded the reach and impact of the live event. Here's why.

Time poverty is radically affecting the behavior of attendees--they don't have time to cruise the aisles, and we are finding that most of them come to the show with pre-established agendas. The virtual show helps them do that. For example, TAPPI (the Technical Association for the Pulp and Paper Industry) found that one month before its trade show this year, more than 5,000 users visited its virtual show. (A user is more significant than a "hit." TAPPI users spent an average 8.5 minutes interacting with various parts of the site.)

Clare Reagan, marketing manager for TAPPI, believes the virtual show will never replace the face-to-face event, "just as online banking hasn't replaced the need for tellers." With the virtual show, she says, "attendees can plan better, they can see what they will gain before they get there." In short, the virtual show speeds up the sales process and even functions as a marketing tool for the live event.

Reagan says that the group's virtual show has had users from South Africa, Saudi Arabia, India, and Europe. "I know we won't see these people on our show floor, but the virtual show reaches them, and our exhibitors can cultivate them into sales leads." A nice feature of the TAPPI virtual show is that exhibitors are given a password so they can update their Web page at any time.

At the International Manufacturing Technology Show, held in Chicago last September, 11 percent of the 210 people whom we interviewed said that the show's Web site actually influenced their decision to attend. For example, Steve Brandon of Systems Electronics Corporation in St. Louis said he wasn't planning to attend the event and visited the site only to see if laser-cutting equipment companies would be exhibiting. Once he saw who was attending, he decided to register.

Since an exposition usually reaches around 20 percent of its potential buyer population, the virtual show has the power to reach the other 80 percent. Expositions that have a difficult time co-locating can easily hyperlink their virtual events and co-promote industry themes. And using the Web can also reduce transaction costs, since processing a registration by phone or mail is much more expensive than using the Internet. Obtaining programs or directories online can significantly reduce printing costs. All of which is to say, the virtual show is a cost-effective tool, not a threat! *