What it takes to run a virtual trade show

Speakers at a conference being recorded for virtual distribution

Several major tech conferences have been canceled this year due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, including Mobile World Congress, Facebook F8, South by Southwest, E3 Expo, and many others. But in some cases, they’re going virtual instead.

In early March, Collision Conference, which gathers 30,000+ people from around the world to discuss global tech industry topics, said it would turn its Toronto event into a virtual one for 2020. Called Collision from Home, those with tickets will be able to log in and “attend” remotely. The decision has been commended for smartly leveraging the very type of technology the conference promotes. But devising the new format won’t be an easy feat.

Collision Conference is a step ahead because the company already has its own software that attendees can use to network, connect, and live chat via a mobile app. They have also historically offered live streaming and a system for those who can’t make it in person to participate remotely in workshops. 

But a small number of attendees logging in remotely is one thing. Thousands of people doing so at once is another that requires the right tools and technologies to sufficiently accommodate the heavy traffic.

Variables to consider when planning an online event

First, you need to consider a number of variables, such as:

  • Is the show large or small?
  • Will it be live, recorded, or include a combination of both?
  • Will you have multiple speakers and does the conversation need to be interactive? (e.g. questions from the audience at the end or from social media)
  • Does the show involve exhibitors “showing” new products and services?
  • What content will you have on the site to keep show-goers engaged?
  • How will you entertain attendees? Some companies like Drip, for example, piped in music in between streams and offered contests and prizes.
  • Are sales going to be conducted at the show and if so, how will they be facilitated?

What tools or technologies are needed?

A woman on a video conference call, taking notes from a presentation being shared on screen

There are two main types of virtual trade shows: those that include a live, in-person component and those that are entirely over the Internet, typically termed summits. And companies have been experimenting with them for years. 

In April 2018, the Automated Virtual Conference by Drip welcomed more than 20,000 registrants to listen to 14 e-commerce experts online. The marketing company was used to holding in-person conferences where a big room, fun decor, and a wild after-party were expected. In the switch to virtual, they still managed to wow show-goers with livestreams, live social media feeds, recorded talks, and curated content. In August of that same year, Wistia hosted its CouchCon virtual event, including live keynotes and pre-recorded speeches by marketing experts that were viewed by 1,700 attendees from around the world.

To get started, here’s what to consider:

  • Find a streaming platform like VConference Online and/or video conferencing software like Zoom, and/or a private content delivery network (CDN) like Livestream. 
  • Decide on a venue to record the speakers or panels unless participants record in their own spaces, along with camera equipment and operators, microphones, and proper lighting. 
  • Video-on-demand content means recording the speeches or seminars and uploading them to a video sharing platform. For CouchCon, Wistia chose to record most of its speaker sessions ahead of time to help mitigate the potential for technical difficulties. Each speaker was given access to the company’s Soapbox free webcam and recording tool to keep things consistent across every session, along with guidelines for things like accompanying slides, social media tags, and the use of imagery. For live sessions, they used CrowdCast.
  • Do you have enough bandwidth to ensure a high quality experience for all attendees without buffering or lagging?
  • If there’s a fee for attending, a monetization system or paywall will be necessary. Make sure signing up is easy and seamless, and integrate ways for attendees to easily share the sign-up form with others.
  • Addressing security and privacy concerns, including managing authorization and authentication into the event. Tracey Ades, Director of Global Communications & Programmes at Montreal-based security solutions company Genetec, Inc., which will be holding its global Connect’DX event at the end of April says, “It’s important to work with a platform that mitigates any possible cyber security issues with integrations and any streams coming down from the solution onto your network.”

Potential challenges and concerns for online conferences

a speaker being recorded for virtual distribution

Now, there are some questions that should be answered during the planning phase.

For existing shows, would the price of admission go up or be reduced due to the lower overhead costs, and would that then attract more attendees? The platform used for streaming needs to take the expected number of attendees into consideration. 

London-based start-up Hopin, for example, broadcasts live events and says it can accommodate up to 100,000 people logging on at a time. It hopes to increase capacity to a million in the future. Not surprisingly, in the wake of COVID-19, the company has been seeing demand skyrocket.

Using third-party services like the ones noted above eliminates the need for a company to have bandwidth and servers in-house to run everything, and minimizes the possibility of getting bogged down and slow. 

There’s also concern that attendees have sufficient network capabilities to stream from wherever they are.

Some company networks have firewalls or bandwidth limitations in place to prevent bandwidth-intensive activities or streaming content from unauthorized sources. Even if they don’t, several employees streaming from one location at the same time could slow down the system, impacting productivity for others in the office or leading to choppy, buffering playback. 

The same could be the case for remote workers who can’t log in from their hotel room or home office because they live in a rural area or have a slow Internet connection or limited bandwidth. Watching several seminars could eat all of your available monthly bandwidth in a matter of hours, lead to slow playback due to throttling when you reach a certain cap, or cause interference with other devices in the home or office. 

Time differences also need to be taken into consideration for a “live” show. As the company prepares for its conference, Genetec is facing questions from customers like if they will host multiple events in multiple languages throughout the day, and how to determine the right ratio between live broadcasts and on-demand content simulated live with live chat, says Ades. 

Other concerns Ades points out include being able to integrate tools with their existing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, not to mention being able to have insights and data on engagement and behavior.  

Virtual trade shows have the potential to make a measurable difference in the conference world.

Can virtual conferences really work?

Beyond the technical capabilities that make virtual conferences totally do-able, it’s important to note that nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. But there’s something to be said for leveraging technology to help businesses and individuals reduce travel costs, be more productive, and spend less time away from their families. 

For these reasons, live event broadcasting start-ups like Hopin and Run the World emerged long before virtual trade shows were being considered because of public safety concerns. Run the World launched simply to offer a solution for the new generation so more people worldwide could participate in large conferences.

Virtual trade shows might not completely replace live ones. There are many cases when in-person networking, product demos, and interactive discussions are essential; events where you have to touch and feel fabrics, for example, or demo HiFi sound. 

But with the technology and connectivity to support them, virtual trade shows have the potential to make a measurable difference in the conference world. And while they are gaining attention these days because of necessity, not choice, it’s encouraging companies to explore opportunities they might not otherwise have explored. And it’s making use of technology to bring people together in unique ways that keep our health and safety in mind.

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