The statistics in U.S. Commerce Department's first-ever report on information technology, released in mid-April, should be a wake-up call for any meeting executive not yet convinced of the marketing potential of the World Wide Web. A few of the facts: In 1994, just 3 million people were connected to the Internet; by the end of 1996, 40 million were using it, and by the end of last year, 100 million. Traffic on the Internet has doubled every 100 days and Internet commerce--negligible just a few years ago--could surpass $300 billion by 2002.

At METCON '98 attendees took in similarly astounding statistics, and were eager for information on improving their meetings' Web presence. "Your Web site is your competitive face to the world," said presenter Kevin McDermott, director of electronic communication services for Smith Bucklin and Associates, based in Chicago. McDermott and others who led sessions on successful Web sites, virtual trade shows, and Web marketing, made a strong case for the well-designed meeting site that generates leads, increases profitability, and offers greater service to attendees.

Tips and Tools Most Web sites are little more than a glorified brochure, a lost opportunity to take advantage of the interactive nature of the Internet and encourage visitors to return. However, for the imaginative marketer, there are a number of strategies that can enliven a stale site.

* Generate leads by offering visitors access to interesting parts of your Web site only after filling out an information form. "If they're interested in seeing one part of your Web site--last year's conference attendance, for example--then they'll be motivated to fill out a form," said Doug Fox, president of Doug Fox Communications, Richmond, Va.

* "Assess your information assets," suggested McDermott. Figure out what your organization owns--newsletters, membership rosters, other information--and get it online to generate interest in your association and its meetings.

* Ask visitors if they'd like to receive a free e-mail event newsletter. Once you've captured their e-mail address, you can send out monthly or weekly conference updates. "Make sure to include a link to your registration page in the e-mail newsletter," said Fox.

* Generate leads simply by adding a "request brochure" button.

* Allow site visitors to e-mail your organization directly.

* Market the Web site aggressively: Include the address on the signature line of all e-mails; request links from your facility, CVB, and exhibitors' Web sites; and register with search engines.

* Make your site a "desktop reference," suggested presenter Barbara Lane, GES Exposition Services. By offering checklists, the latest news, and a directory of members' e-mail addresses, for example, you give visitors reasons to return. The Javits Center in New York, Lane said, has put its new work rules online, saving staff time and mailing costs, and giving exhibitors better service.

* Other traffic builders: job banks, chat rooms, online stores, online training, and surveys.

The Virtual Trade Show "There's probably nothing that can increase visits to a Web site more quickly than a virtual trade show," said Lane. Simply put, a virtual trade show is an online presence for your exhibitors that can extend the life of your trade show for months before and after the actual show.

While there's no set formula, a visitor to a virtual show can usually search for exhibitors by name or product category, then click to an information page for a particular exhibitor. One sophisticated site demonstrated at METCON, www.cleanshow.com, offers the expo of the World Educational Congress for Laundering and Dry Cleaning in simple directory form; in a "product gallery," with photos and expanded company information; and in "virtual gallery," with a video clip of the booth on the show floor.

Presenters urged planners to view the virtual trade show as an enhancement, not a replacement, for on-site activities. "You're really doing everyone a favor," said Kevin McDermott, "It's an advertising vehicle for vendors, it's a promotional vehicle for the show, and it's a support vehicle for attendees after they get back to the office."

How do you pay for it? Some show managers raise booth costs, charge vendors directly, sell banner ads on the Web site, charge by the lead, or just add it on to the cost of doing business.*