More than a year into the mass migration to online conferences and expose, there still seems to be a divide between what virtual conference platforms are providing when it comes to exhibitor booths versus what attendees actually want.
And it’s no secret that many virtual exhibitors have been underwhelmed by the options available to them to reach audiences at online conferences. Consequently, many exhibitors have been very disappointed with the results.
Advantages Of Virtual Exhibit Booths
There are potentially a number of significant advantages to virtual exhibit booths versus showing up at a conference or trade show in person. Exhibiting in a physical space has many pain points and a virtual exhibit hall can generally offer easier logistics, lower costs and less time.
After all, even before ordering the branded tchotchkes, buying the bite-sized chocolates or printing stacks of glossy brochures, it takes a lot of time and effort to exhibit at a single conference or trade show.
There’s the cost of the booth itself, plus the time and expense of shipping it and then setting it up (not to mention filling out forms and paying exorbitant sums for Internet connections, electrical hookups and even an extra trash can). Also, because an exhibit booth doesn’t run itself, it means sending staff to the meeting as well. It’s rarely just one person to mind the booth; typically it’s a small team in matching shirts. That means the salaries of the staff who attend, plus travel, lodging and food.
And, yet, in-person exhibit booths are not exactly a surefire way to generate interest, form partnerships or make sales. Exhibit halls are frequently ostracized to ballrooms that are off the beaten path. When exhibitors are instead squeezed into prime, high-traffic areas, it’s an obvious double-edged sword; as people flow in and around you, it’s so loud and chaotic that having a meaningful conversation with a potential client becomes difficult. And while a booth may need to be staffed during all the hours of an event, there are short cloudbursts where attendees stream in and out like a flash flood. This means that manning a booth is a feast-or-famine cycle with long periods of monotonous downtime interspersed with fast and furious interactions. And despite a bevy of high-tech solutions, it’s still hard to know who stopped by beyond putting out a fishbowl for business cards.
Exhibitors wouldn’t go through all this hassle if it didn’t result in some beneficial outcomes. However, it’s a lot of effort for what can seem like pretty minimal return. Therefore, exhibitors should be ecstatic about the prospect of online events and virtual booths. After all, a virtual event platform should solve a lot of the pain points of in-person exhibit booths. They take away the expense and hassle of shipping exhibits, setting them up and taking them down. They mean a substantially lighter load when it comes to staffing. And they should provide a better solution to the feast-or-famine dilemma while also providing better data and contacts.
Where Virtual Exhibit Booths Go Wrong
But conference platforms and virtual exhibit booths have often not delivered on these potential improvements. Instead, what many exhibitors have gotten is basically a digital signboard with a link that directs visitors to their regular website. In a lot of cases, well-meaning exhibitors have been sold a bill of goods. They’re right to be frustrated. It’s somewhat easy to understand exhibitors’ excitement to return to in-person events, even with the substantial costs and energy to net what are often minimal returns.
Where do virtual exhibit booths fall short?
- They focus on form more than function. There are some beautiful virtual exhibit booths that exist. However, what they look like is less important than what they do and how they allow attendees and exhibitors to interact.
- They’re basically empty facades. Many virtual exhibit booths are not so much booths that one can visit as they are billboards that one can look at. Yes, that billboard might display a short video or product demo. Still, it makes the booth a very passive experience instead of one that really engages visitors and helps them solve problems.
- There’s no way—or no easy way—to talk with someone from the exhibiting organization. Some virtual exhibit booths provide a general chat box, but this is just not a good solution. It seems illogical that a company with a multifaceted product or service that may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars would think that potential buyers are going to feel satisfied chatting with them via, slow, tedious texts similar to how telecom companies, renowned for terrible customer service, interact with frustrated customers.
- The virtual exhibit booths are staffed but it’s a mystery as to when. With in-person exhibits, it’s easy to see a handwritten note or a little clock face that lets you know when an exhibitor will be back from lunch. Not that we need to recreate all of the physical details of an exhibit experience, but knowing whether there will be someone with whom to speak and at what time is helpful.
- There’s not a good way to manage multiple visitors at the same time. Because conferences still follow an agenda where big sessions let out into breaks when attendees visit exhibitors, there is still a real ebb and flow to traffic. A virtual exhibitor doesn’t need to actually put a team on a plane so it’s easier to have more people available in a virtual exhibit booth than it is in person. But it’s remarkable how typical it is to have a bunch of interested attendees who want to learn about a new product or service, only to arrive at a vendor’s booth and be ignored. There are certainly better ways to handle load balancing with the available technology. Even allowing attendees to sign up on a calendar for specific spots makes a lot of sense, but is not always seen on virtual conference platforms.
- There’s not an easy way to find the exhibitors that are relevant for each attendee. As an event organizer, there’s perhaps some devilish thinking that if attendees have less exact information about who the exhibitors are, they will visit all of them just to be sure they’re not missing something that’s relevant. But, as we probably know from our own in-person experience, attendees seem more likely to skip the whole expo portion rather than spend lots of time and effort visiting every booth. Virtual conference platforms should make it easy for attendees to quickly understand what each exhibitor does and to potentially sort and filter through a list of exhibitors. It’s amazing how many virtual exhibit halls list the name of the exhibitors with no explanation as to what they do and no way to search or sort to find the ones that are relevant for an attendee.
- They don’t provide a value-added experience. Many so-called virtual exhibitor booths are a little more than looking at a website. Yet, attendees could stay home and look at a company’s website; they don’t need to attend a conference to do that. Nor is anyone excited to show up a booth, click a button and get a PDF download; that’s not what people want from a virtual exhibit booth. So if you’re going to provide booths or a virtual exhibit hall, think about what you’re doing that really adds value.
Eventually virtual conference platforms will get online exhibits right. Eventually they’ll deliver real, consistent value to the attendees and the exhibitors. But the longer the wait, the more frustrated and disillusioned both parties will get. As a result, it will be more difficult to convince exhibitors to put down money for virtual exhibit booths on one hand and, on the other, to convince attendees that they should make it a point to visit the virtual exhibitors.