Question - how can you attend an event without actually travelling there?
Answer - when you attend a virtual trade show.
The concept of a virtual event was first mooted by the association's CEO and past President, Stephen Tucker, in 2008.
He pitched the idea of a place where technicians could attend the trade show and gain education from the comfort of their desk.
Exhibitors build virtual booths to display their wares, just as they would at a traditional trade show. In addition, they upload tailored information to appeal to the target audience. Visitors register online, creating a virtual identity or avatar, enter the virtual exhibition hall and interact with company representatives in real-time, using instant message, email or voice call. They can also view videos, slide presentations and audio messages at the click of a mouse.
In addition to this one-to-one interaction, the event can encompass group presentations, discussions, conferences and online seminars (webinars). Without the limitations of floor space or meeting rooms, they're able to accommodate a greater number of people and run simultaneously, with transcripts being made available post-event.
In 2009, the IGCEMA began the development of its virtual trade show with the support and backing of The Toro Company, John Deere Golf and Jacobsen, and commissioned California-based virtual events specialists, 6connect, to develop the software.
Its vision is to grow the VTS into a worldwide event where any company has the opportunity to showcase its products and services to the golf management world, regardless of its size or geographic location.
With events of all sizes in a multitude of sectors falling foul of the global recession, the first VTS was held last year, with media and marketing support provided by Golfdom magazine. Ten companies exhibited and the inaugural show prompted excellent attendance from equipment technicians around the world.
This year, the IGCEMA opted to partner with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) to promote the event. CEO Stephen Tucker, who is Equipment Manager at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Sarasota, Florida and organiser of the VTS, explains why.
"The IGCEMA has created a great relationship with the GCSAA over the last few years, which includes our participation as a partner in its physical trade show, GIS. We felt that their broad reach to members and allied associations would help catapult the virtual trade show. The intention is that the VTS is for everyone, from equipment technicians to superintendents and golf course owners. As the concept is new for the IGCEMA, it is also new to the GCSAA, and figuring out the best way to market it moving forward is going to be the key."
"We had close to 500 people in attendance for the live event. We still have ninety days of on-demand for these stats to grow, so we won't know final numbers until that period is over."
I spoke to Carl Osterhaus, Service Education Manager from The Toro Company, to gauge the success of the event from an exhibitor's perspective: "We thought the VTS went very well. Improvements to the tradeshow system allowed for better, problem-free interaction with the customers than we had last year. We have also been creating a lot of video based product information, and that was very well suited for this type of event."
"As far as the quality of the visitors, I felt that the interaction and the questions this year were greatly improved over last year. Last year the common question I was asked was 'What do you think of the tradeshow?' This year the majority of questions were related to product offerings and introductions, so that was a welcome change."
I asked Carl what he considered to be the main benefits of a virtual event.
"One of the advantages is that attendees have time, and the opportunity, to really discuss products with company reps and vice-versa. At the traditional shows, there are sometimes so many people in attendance, it can be difficult to talk to the correct person, or spend as much time with that person as possible," he explains.
"This type of a show, at least at these attendance levels, allows more one on one time if the attendee chooses. Plus the twenty-four hour format, without the expense of travel, opens the show up to individuals who may not be able to attend otherwise."
So, will Toro be exhibiting again next year?
"That's an interesting question," he mused. "Last year the expectation for attendance was relatively low, due to this being the first attempt at a show of this type, and the unknown aspect of the whole concept. Expectations this year were a little higher due, in part, to increased awareness and additional vendors."
"However, actual attendance for the show did not increase much, and may have actually decreased from last year, which is concerning. At current attendance levels the 'cost per customer contact' is still too high. A bigger concern is whether customers see the value in attending the event."
"I think that the concept is a great idea and, eventually, these types of events will be more common than they are right now. As a company, we haven't participated in any other virtual events, but we do conduct a fair amount of training through internet-type delivery systems, because we've found that the current base of technicians are pretty comfortable with computers and the internet. That's why we were pretty confident in the VTS concept. Based on this year's event, I'd say it may still be a couple of years ahead of its time."
"Over the next few months, we will be evaluating the cost of our participation versus the number of customers it benefits, and if there are ways to benefit or interact with more customers for the same expenditure."
The virtual experience
So, what of the visitor experience?
I spoke with Randy Bushway, from The Country Club of Boca Raton, Florida, who attended the VTS on all three 'live' days. He's interested in the availability of a virtual event powered by modern technology and says he had a positive experience.
"It's the next best thing to attending in person," he summarised. "I attended on all three days and visited different areas. It was obvious that a lot of time and effort had been put in from those involved to make it a worthwhile experience."
"It was my first visit to a virtual event and I wanted to find my way around this year, so I didn't attend the education seminars. I wasn't looking to buy anything in particular, but I'm always interested in new equipment that's available."
I asked Randy how the VTS compares with attending a show 'for real'.
"I don't think you can compare it to actually attending a show, but it is a great substitute for not being able to go at all. From your own office, you can see what equipment is out there and what it can do, chat with other industry personnel, take in some educational seminars, talk with sales reps and ask detailed questions."
What was missing from the experience for Randy was the hands-on element.
"You can't sit on and touch the equipment, or hear what other superintendents are saying and what questions they are asking. You can't then have lunch at table with others to discuss if they have experience of using any of the equipment you might be interested in. In short, after attending the golf show in years past, there's no substitute for attending in person. This is a great alternative though."
Pat Callaby, IGCEMA's President and Workshop Manager at the Celtic Manor Resort, said: "This year's Virtual Trade Show had many improvements compared to the first year as far as the technology was concerned. I think the only disappointment for us was the number of people who registered for the three live days, which was quite low despite an intensive advertising campaign."
"Traffic was better than last year with attendees staying in the show for an average of 55 minutes each. During peak hours we saw an average of 45-55 people present, but we expected to see more overall."
"We obviously have a lot of work to do on the marketing side of this event to let people know about the show and also to create greater appeal, perhaps with more incentives from exhibitors."
"The Virtual Trade Show is a new concept and, like many new things, it can take a little while to embrace, we just need to get more creative. Our exhibitors see the value of the show and are also aware that it takes time to build on a new concept, but the IGCEMA will ensure they get value for money. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank all the exhibitors and visitors for their ongoing support of both the show and the association."
A step forward, or a step too far?
There's little doubt that there are significant benefits to virtual events, especially during difficult economic times. Removing the burden of travel, accommodation and subsistence costs, together with lost productivity during the time taken to travel to and from an event, must surely make allowing an employee to 'attend' a virtual event a more attractive proposition to employers.
The greatest cost-reduction is undoubtedly to exhibitors. Despite the investment in audio visual communications necessary to take part in virtual events, anything that negates the need to transport and set up heavy machinery has to be welcomed by the trade. Add to that the costs saved by a small number of employees manning their virtual booth in comparison to a larger team travelling to a trade show, and the substantial cost of keeping them there, and you can see why companies such as Toro are committed to making the VTS work.
One of the key benefits of virtual events is that the software used to run them is a powerful data capture tool. From the moment an individual registers, information can be gathered about their location, purchasing intentions and educational interests. When they visit, software tracks their involvement and access to information and, when the event draws to a close, detailed feedback can be sought on all aspects of the visitor experience. Post-event analysis provides accurate data for the organiser and exhibitors, giving trade companies the all-important 'cost per contact' figure that, amongst other factors, helps them determine the success of an event.
To visitors, it means less time away from work and home, and from the feedback from the IGCEMA's VTS, improved one-to-one interaction and access to specific information for the serious buyer.
What it prevents is the spontaneous meetings which add the enjoyable element of the tradeshow environment. The golf and turf industries are friendly, hospitable and welcoming and, while people can appreciate the business logic for virtual events, they're understandably apprehensive about relinquishing the chance to catch up with old friends and meet new ones over a drink or two.
Perhaps a hybrid of real and virtual is the natural next step? A real exhibition hall coupled with virtual add-ons for those unable or unwilling to attend, but who still want access to the same information. Time will tell.