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What you’ll learn

  • The state of online trade shows.
  • Find out what’s wrong and right with the latest crop of online trade shows.

Have you attended a trade show lately? It’s something I used to do on a regular basis, but these days everything is virtual due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Online is now the way to go when it comes to almost everything from medicine to schools to trade shows.

I’ve done more than half-a-dozen trade shows recently, including booth duty, which was “interesting.” More on that later. I also want to note that Endeavor Media, which we’re part of, does run online trade shows as well as host webinars.

Current State of Affairs

Online trade shows are much like video-streaming services. There are many of them, and none are the same. Each has its own interface, presentation method, registration, etc. Compare this to the in-person events and you can see why lots of confusion reigns when it comes to attendance.

In general, online trade shows have been trying to replicate their in-person events, which isn’t necessarily a great idea. At one extreme are websites with links to documents, prerecorded webinars, and Zoom conferences. At the other end are custom apps that resemble Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

I’ll mention virtual reality (VR) only briefly. It doesn’t require VR goggles, though it can add to the effect of “being there.” The problem is that you need to control an avatar, which isn’t easy, and your interaction with another avatar isn’t the same as doing a video conference.

Some outfits have been doing online conferences for a while and have made refinements. However, many have been scrambling to replace existing shows with online equivalents. Oftentimes, shows are being pushed back to allow the hosts to make adjustments, of which there are many. I ran into the same issues when we had to flip our science fair online.

Even session presenters and sponsors need to adjust. Slideshows are the norm for presentations, but they can be audio-only or include a video component.

Online trade shows generally try to mimic their in-person counterparts. They typically have presentations including keynotes that tend to be presentation-only affairs. Next, there’s the horde of presentations normally organized in tracks covering various topics. The exhibitors usually have some sort of “show floor” to present their wares and interact with attendees. Some events have included ways to let peers congregate, with different levels of success.

Advantages, Disadvantages, and Other Issues

Virtual events, in theory, have lots of advantages. One of them is remote attendance—contact information exchange is essentially automatic, and there’s no need to carry a bag to get materials. Of course, virtual swag isn’t quite the same as something you can hold, although getting it in the mail does provide some enjoyment at a later time.

A virtual event means that everyone needs a computer, which opens up many possibilities. QR codes didn’t make sense until the majority of people had smartphones with cameras, but these days that’s the norm. Physical events typically have apps offering maps, schedules, etc., and that’s essentially a given for virtual events.

Timing is both an advantage and disadvantage, or at least a pain point. Most virtual events incorporate recorded audio and video in addition to links to these and other resources. Thus, the time you “attend” a show can be spread out significantly. Often you can utilize these materials well after the “live events” have finished. Likewise, “is it live or is it Memorex?” If you don’t need or aren’t providing direct interaction during or after a presentation, then why not record it. It allows those viewing it to rewind or jump forward, which isn’t possible with an in-person event.  

In-person events are obviously locked to the time zone of the physical area. It makes sense to run 9 to 5, but that’s not the case with a virtual event. In fact, dealing with jet lag actually gets you into the time zone of an in-person event. We ran into this issue when dealing with an event that wanted to be on California time; however, some of our attendees were based in Germany. Even minor differences can wreak havoc on child care, lunch, and synchronizing meetings.

You’re being tracked! At in-person events, the move to smart badges and other tracking tools was on the rise. It’s a trivial thing to do with a virtual event, though, regardless of whether you’re using a web browser or a custom app. The latter simply can take your picture and pulse rate if you have the right phone. I’d rather not be tracked, but it’s getting harder every day. On the plus side, it’s easier to recall where I’ve been and who I talked with, even if I’m not using a custom app that provides this support.

Interaction between people is where an in-person event tends to shine, and it’s the more challenging aspect for online communication. There are different requirements and issues depending on the number of people involved, type of interaction, etc. Luckily, audio and video over the internet is readily available, at least to those who have a decent internet connection.

The challenge is that conferencing tools such as Zoom have been tailored for specific types of interactions and are cumbersome for those that don’t fit the mold. For example, Zoom, like most video-conferencing tools including Microsoft Teams, works well for small groups or large groups that only have a few speakers. Zoom even has virtual room support, so it’s possible to have groups of people moving into a room, although the management interface is really poor at this point.

The problem is that who can go where and when is different than in-person interaction. It’s easy for two people to move around a show floor together, but try that with any of the conferencing tools.

Lynette Coulson, Pixabay

“Moving about” in general in a virtual system is hard. Gamification is a wonderful term bandied about by virtual conference platform providers, but I find it rather annoying when I go into a room or event and can’t get back to where I was before. I went into a booth on one platform and when I left, I was back at the top level. For one trade show, I was using my PC and had to reduce the browser window from full screen to a fraction of that size; as a result, the site switched to the smartphone view that was easier to navigate

Sound, Latency, and Playing to the Camera

But back to audio and video. Latency is a fact of life with remote communication. The effects can be subtle with conversations and interactions, but overall it can be disorienting. This tends to be more of an issue with video conferencing. Issues may also arise with lighting, especially since most work out of their homes where its often difficult to impossible to fix problems with glare, low light, or bad camera color and focus. Technical difficulties with this hardware tend to be one of the prime issues for virtual attendees and exhibitors.

Sound can be an issue when multiple people will be speaking. Many in-person conferences often have a sound person in the back with a big board for mixing and controlling the volume for each speaker. I have yet to find an online tool that does this, and there’s nothing where I as a user could make changes with respect to other individuals. This means I’m straining to hear someone while flipping down the volume when others are on. I suspect everyone knows about feedback and muting yourself.

Using and dealing with a video camera is something required by video conferencing. Most people don’t pay attention to it, resulting in far-off looks or strange eye or head movements even when you’re trying to concentrate and speak with a specific individual.

I usually run with three screens, including a big 4K screen with a camera mounted in the center. I can spread images from a conference across this collection of screens, which means my eyes and head movement make no sense to someone watching me. I usually try to talk to the camera with eye contact in the same fashion, but even that can seem odd when you’re watching it since I may be the lower right or upper left corner.

Virtual Shows Makes Bad Presentations Worse

If you’re hosting a panel session or giving a presentation, then everyone in the room sees you based on where they’re sitting. That’s not quite the case with virtual interactions that are common at virtual tradeshows. Often there’s a slide presentation available or multiple people talking. Systems that automatically switch a limited number of video areas between speakers can make your head spin, especially when you want to be seen.

The mixture of slides and videos can be really bad if the implementation or playback isn’t taken into account. I watched one session that had two tiny videos of the speakers with the rest of the screen filled by the slide show. The video was completely useless and distracting. Of course, this is no different from having someone who likes to put microprint on their slides so that they can try to fit all of the words in the dictionary on one page.

The other problem with the presentations is that attendees may be using different platforms. Having a 4K large-screen monitor isn’t the same as a 4K tablet or smartphone. They do display the same number of pixels, but that’s not relevant when trying to read microprint.

Doing Booth Duty

Online booth duty is like magic. Poof. There are attendees wanting to talk with you.

This problem goes hand-in-hand with the inability to navigate based on your surroundings. Combine this with the inability to manage interactions means that you may have too many people to contend with.

In theory, a queueing management system would handle an event’s large crowds sequentially with a handful of people. However, I have yet to see a virtual event that can do this task well. It’s actually one of the downsides to virtual tradeshows, but it’s a software fix.

Unlike in-person booth duty where you will probably be playing with your phone, the virtual event already has you in front of a screen where you can do useful things like visit other booths at a tradeshow or pop into other events, assuming it’s allowed by the platform. Most don’t.

Remember my mention of a common framework for tradeshows? Well, this is another place where that would come in handy. A “virtual booth” can consist of all sorts of things, from basic file upload/download capability to putting up polls and running contests.

Recommendations for Developers

It will never happen, but it would be nice if a common software framework existed for building attendee and exhibitor/sponsor interfaces. This would allow for the creation of multiple interfaces with add-ons. It also means that you could learn one application and optimize if for you rather than having to deal with a new platform for each event you’re involved with.

The quote “eat your own dog food” comes to mind for these virtual platforms. I know it takes lots of time to program them, but how they operate is much more complex than a conventional website or using a video-conference tool. Online help, feedback, etc. should be part of a solution because these systems are new and generally rather crude at this point. Likewise, keep in mind everything from privacy to security, and try to make the everything even-handed, if possible, rather than only focusing on exhibitors or others involved in using your tool.

For some general tips, many shorter presentations are easier for consumption especially if they’re organized well with automatic linkages. For example, a recent Nvidia keynote, which would normally run an hour or more, was broken up into half-a-dozen videos that flipped from one to another if you wanted to consume it in that fashion. Simply having a massive list of content with no organization is a waste for presenters and attendees.

For exhibitors, figure out ways to make setup and follow-up easier as well as how to have a bigger presence. A large physical booth doesn’t necessarily translate well to a browser where the user’s fixed screen size makes interacting with any exhibitor more limiting.

In general, you want to make the virtual event more valuable than an in-person event—and that’s possible. Managing materials, scheduling, and more personal interactions can be accomplished with a virtual environment that would be unmanageable or impractical in person. The trick isn’t to replicate the in-person look and feel, but rather to come up with a better combination of dealing with shifting requirements and desires. No one wants to sit in front of a screen for an entire day without a break.

Future Hybrid Conferences

The state of affairs will improve in the long run, and it’s likely that the online versions may run in conjunction with in-person events should the latter ever come back. That may take years, or we may be lucky and be able to meet in person without fear of contracting COVID-19.

Eventually in-person events will reemerge. The big question then is whether those events are only in-person or if they will have a virtual component. Will virtual attendees be second-class citizens? Will some of the tools for virtual shows be worked into the app that in-person attendees will have on their phone, so they can get information without walking into a booth?



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