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4/30/2007
04:24 PM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Relief for Conference-Goers' Aching Dogs

With the number of live events seemingly growing by the week, you may be asking yourself how many of them you really need to attend—as well as what you’ll miss if you don’t. Of course, you must go to Enterprise 2.0. But what about the other 217 shows? While I don’t discount the value of meeting and learning live and in person, there’s certainly something to be said for virtual events—and a young company called Unisfair is looking for ways to make them a reality.

Unisfair’s virtual events have the look and feel of a physical event—including a convention-center-like entranceway; a ballroom for keynotes and conference sessions; an exhibition hall with partner and vendor booths; a resource center; and networking lounges. Attendees can click to see live presentations, interact with vendors, and engage with one another. But what I like most about it is its elegance—there’s no superficial additives, like, say, having to create an attendee avatar, or game your way form one area to the next. And because the event exists online, it can be available on demand after the fact for weeks or months (or, presumably, years), allowing attendees to revisit content, and attracting new attendees as they become interested and/or available.

The demo I saw was compelling, and it’s easy to understand the value of a virtual event for attendees and sponsors alike. Convention-goers can bypass the travel, the rubber chickens and the blisters and still get access to relevant, educational content and product information. The sponsors can get out in front of prospects and customers live, then keep the interaction sticky with persistent content and live follow-ups. And because the system tracks everything a given participant does (every vendor he chats with, every keynote he attends), sponsors can see whether their efforts hit the mark or disappeared into the ether.

The software also encourages real-time interaction and participation. Attendees can ask questions during presentations, which one would expect, but they can also chat live with a vendor rep in the exhibition hall, or meet with fellow attendees in a networking lounge (it’s BYOB, of course). That’s all good stuff, but it’s also the area that will need the most development, from both a technological and a social POV—the real value of live events isn’t the content, it’s the people.

I wouldn’t expect the Unisfair technology to replace large conventions like VoiceCon or Interop—for one thing, it wouldn’t scale (and I don’t mean the technology). But I see three really good uses for it: as a replacement for small, niche meetings, with scores or hundreds, rather than thousands, of attendees; as an adjunct to large live events, so that conference-goers can access materials, content and contact info online, and interact before, during and after the sessions; and as a corporate event site, allowing organizations to bring employees together for virtual meetings in an attractive and effective way.

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