The trade show business is not likely to be replaced by the cyberspace trade mart any time soon. But the Internet is gaining significance with regards to traditional trade shows, and relevance to small and midsized companies that cannot afford to exhibit at the larger shows.
Currently, virtual and physical trade shows coexist in some form. Show management and associations establish Web sites long before a show opens and keep show-related content online after the event has ended.
This not only promotes the event but extends the time that exhibitors can address an audience. Virtual trade shows that exist only electronically have gained limited acceptance, generally in consumer and service types of industries.
One Dallas-based company, Trade Group Inc., includes on its World Wide Web site (http:// www.tradegroup.com) a section titled Virtual Trade Shows. The virtual section, however, has suspended its online exhibition operations because the contact person listed on the site for that area, Wayne Batchelder, has left the firm, TGI spokesman Wally Stone said in a recent telephone interview.
The company since has ``placed its plans for the virtual trade show on the back burner,'' Stone said. He did not elaborate as to when or if TGI would resurrect the online shows.
Web sites that promote a trade show usually hold information about registration, travel, hotel accommodations, and host city guides.
Exhibitor information includes searchable databases with hypertext links to the exhibitor home page, press releases, product information, conference schedules and proceedings.
More-elaborate sites provide product demonstration videos, real-time question-and-answer sessions, and chat rooms for online attendees.
The Association for Manufacturing Technology in McLean, Va., hosts the International Manufacturing Technology Show every other year in Chicago, for the machine tool industry. Its last event, in September, drew 1,400 exhibitors and 115,000 attendees.
Bob Gardner, vice president for communications at AMT, said the Web site the association established for its trade show (http:// www.imts.org) is strictly a promotional vehicle.
``Ultimately a virtual trade show, in an electronic form, would be competition for an on-site trade show. That's not the case, but it does have that potential,'' Gardner said.
``In general, many electronic sales are made with high-volume, low-ticket merchandise. Our exhibitors tend to sell low-volume, high-priced merchandise. It is difficult for me to imagine how someone would purchase a $500,000 machine tool over the Internet,'' he added.
Because AMT constructed its original IMTS Web site for the 1996 fall show, there is nothing against which to gauge its success.
The Web site has been expanded for IMTS 98.
``We can measure the number of hits, pages used, and the number of requests for information, but we won't be able compare until the numbers are in for 1998,'' said Gardner.
``We are looking at the Web sites as one more promotional tool and are utilizing them exactly the same way we use direct mail, trade magazine ad pages or public relations efforts. This is simply another vehicle for doing
this type of a job.
``We are going to set the sites up, monitor them, see how much we have to invest, what the results are, and compare them to the results we have from 1996. We don't have a clue where the Web is going, no one does. So we are trying and measuring it,'' Gardner said.
NPE is proceeding similarly, according to Brigid Hughes, director of trade show promotion for the show's sponsor, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.
The NPE site is located at http://www.npe.org.
``We, and basically the majority of trade associations that promote trade shows, use the Web as a promotional arm. It has become a great promotional tool because you can put as much information as you want there.''
``International visitors don't have to do postage, fax, or phone to find out about a trade show, but instead browse the Web site to see how to get to the show, who to see, or register without worrying about who or what time to call to get that information,'' she said.
Virtual trade shows are effective for smaller companies because they have greater visibility when associated with a well-known trade group as opposed to existing simply as their own site on the Internet.
PolySort, an Akron, Ohio-based online plastics industry forum, has positioned itself in this niche market. Angela Charles, PolySort managing director, said the company timed its virtual plastics expo, dubbed VPE, to coincide with NPE. VPE (http://www.vpe .polysort.com) launched May 16 and runs through Sept. 16.
``Because so many of these companies time product launches around NPE, we thought a virtual plastics expo would expand that product launch globally while it is being introduced to the North American market. At the same time, it provides a forum for companies that are unable to exhibit at NPE to launch products on a global basis,'' Charles said.
``This is our first time as a short-term online event, and we have about a dozen companies that are part of the Virtual Plastics Expo.
``We think this is a good response for a new technology and a new marketing idea,'' she said.
Despite PolySort's vested interest, Charles largely agrees with Gardner and Hughes regarding the future of virtual exhibitions.
``I don't think virtual trade shows will really be competitive. It lets small to medium-sized companies participate in a trade show. Because trade shows are horrendously expensive, these companies can do it at minimal cost. At the same time, larger companies will always be at trade shows.
``People like to kick the tires before they buy a product,'' Charles said.
The virtual trade show experience still requires some work. PolySort has created a three-dimensional site that emulates a walk-through environment, but it plans to upgrade to a video-style, virtual-reality approach once the technology is sophisticated enough.
``A walk-through type of experience still runs too slow,'' according to Charles. ``We are looking at software to do that without slowing down the viewer's experience.''
Another glitch is that some users simply do not have the technology to navigate a virtual trade show.
For instance, a computer industry online trade show presented industry experts, press conferences and meetings in video, audio, and text formats, to accommodate the attendee's technology.
Components that are critical to create virtual trade shows continue to be refined. Hardware requirements include a computer, monitor, cameras, microphones, a regular or high-speed telephone line, or a cable modem connection.
Special software requirements include the basic items needed to connect the hardware in addition to video teleconferencing and virtual reality software.
For example, Apple Computer Inc.'s virtual reality software, Quicktime VR, creates lifelike experiences for viewers.
Objects are manipulated, rotated, and examined in 3-D using a mouse to navigate. Several Internet protocols are incorporating this technology into existing software.
Video conferencing software lets presenters and vendors display material in visual and audio formats. Software and Internet-based multimedia chat architecture lets users communicate in real time on the Internet or at a Web site.
Users also can conduct online multinational conferences and meetings with greater ease using software that automatically translates languages, though no translation software yet created can compare in accuracy with human interpreters.
And so, the technology forges ahead, expanding the possibilities for the form and breadth of business to be conducted online. But most still see virtual shows as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the real thing.
Said SPI's Hughes: ``I don't think virtual trade shows will ever be quite as effective. There is no replacement for face-to-face contact. Most business is built on relationships.
``The one thing a trade show offers, for example with NPE, is exposure to 1,800 companies in just five days. You can't get that exposure with a year's worth of plane tickets,'' Hughes said.