When it worked, it worked,” says David Larkin, CEO of TSNN.com, prime mover behind Expo Tech Expo, the world's first online, 3-D trade show for the event industry. Held September 20 and 21, Expo Tech Expo was an attempt to recreate the look and feel of a real trade show on a computer screen. Attendees used avatars — generic screen representations of themselves — to navigate the Web site. There were exhibit halls to “walk” through, exhibits to visit (clicking on a virtual booth usually opened a new screen with exhibitor information), and, at specific times, exhibitors to “talk” with, using a chat function.

The virtual show was created by Expocentric, a London-based firm, in partnership with Superscape plc, a specialist in 3-D software technology based in Hampshire, UK, and Blaxxun Interactive AG, a Munich-based maker of Web community platforms. “This was really the first release of this product,” says Lori Sachs, vice president of sales and marketing for Expocentric USA. “It wasn't perfect. … The experience you had depended on your connection speed and your hardware.” For example, the full 3-D effect was only possible for those attendees using Microsoft Windows operating systems; Mac, Linux, and Unix users had to settle for two dimensions and a disabled chat function.

According to Larkin, there were about 350 registered visitors and a little more than 500 individual visits to exhibitors. These numbers were disappointing, but given that the show went on just nine days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the poor attendance — even though the show was virtual — was understandable. (Larkin was among those directly affected: His home is just two blocks north of the WTC.)

“I was disappointed in the lack of participation by both exhibitors and attendees,” says Jeff Rasco, senior vice president, JR Daggett & Associates, a meetings consulting firm headquartered in Chicago, who visited the show. “On the plus side, the technology worked better than I expected it to, once I learned my way around. It was fun having my avatar roam the halls and enter into conversations with others in this new world.”

There were technical problems throughout the show, not all of them of TSNN.com's making. Among the problems: The Asia-Pacific section of the Web was down for a while during the show, which slowed connectivity around the world. A virus called the “nimda worm” was released a few days before the show, and at least one exhibitor, Falcon Floral, had its e-commerce capabilities disabled as a result. Beyond these systemic problems, visitors reported browser errors and other irritations. “There were some technical issues that arose,” says Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management. “But that comes under the heading of ‘experiment.’ In retrospect, it was one of the only exhibitions that took place that week, even though it was only online.”

In fact, Expocentric has already been contacted by a major show organizer that is planning to cancel a show in December. The technology might rescue any number of shows whose physical events are being canceled as a result of the September 11 disasters.

Looking ahead, Larkin is encouraged by the success of the chat component of Expo Tech Expo. “I thought that the keynote address followed by the interactive chat worked super-well,” he says. “Maybe instead of full-blown trade shows, we'll have chat sessions, possibly with one or two sponsors. We'll promote it every two weeks, and gradually get people to adopt it. … We'll try to raise and lower expectations at the same time; that's how we'll have to bring this thing along.

“This is like one of those rockets that culminated in getting a man on the moon.”