A virtual trade show with a hosted buyer program might be the perfect combination for the senior level executive that hasn’t been seen at the face-to-face event in years (with or without a recession, corporate travel ban or AIG Effect). However, without the face-to-face contact and experiential elements that enhance sales conversions at live events, event organizers, exhibitors and platform providers will have to work overtime to create a unique and memorable experience tailored to the VIP attendee. Here is a breakdown of what such a program might look like.
Hosted buyer programs begin with the pre-qualification process. It’s likely that a senior executive is less likely to “apply” to be hosted at a virtual event. Instead, organizers will need to work with their internal sales teams or partner with trade publications to identify high quality prospects before inviting them to participate. It’s also worth a look in Twitter, LinkedIn, online forums, the blogosphere or other social media platforms to look for qualifying information on specific individuals. Plus, if they’re on Twitter and LinkedIn, they may be more receptive to a virtual event invitation.
Once the buyers are identified, they should be formally invited. A (snail) mailed invitation could be interesting, followed up by a telephone call and an email reminder. Non-traditional invitations and reminders are especially important for those prospects new to the virtual event world (there are still some out there). Of course the benefits for attending should be emphasized at this stage such as high level, customized, exclusive content, peer-to-peer networking, incentives for attending, customized agenda, reminders, senior level exhibitor interaction and tremendous time savings.
In addition to the trade show component, the ideal virtual event should contain a live-streamed keynote presentation from an exclusive speaker, followed by a live Q & A session where attendees can address specific questions to the presenter. The presentation would be limited to the hosted (VIP) attendees. Keeping the number of attendees low will guarantee that their questions are addressed.
Event organizers would contact the hosted buyers in advance to solicit ideas and information for the type of content that they would like to receive at the virtual event. Information in the form of research, white papers, financial analyses, keynote “cliff notes,” benchmarking data, etc. can be prepared in advance to meet their specific needs. Such content should be exclusive to hosted buyers, although summaries and abbreviated versions of the VIP content could be made available to non-hosted buyers.
Standard features of hosted buyer programs for live events include airfare, hotel accommodations, meals and entertainment paid for by event sponsors. Incentives for attendance at a virtual event could include cash honorariums (paid via PayPal), transferable free registration at the annual face-to-face trade show, subscriptions to executive-level online information services or copies of exclusive research reports.
Successful hosted buyer programs do a good job of providing premium content and experiences to a select group of attendees. Virtual trade shows are no different. Some exclusive features could include:
- VIP chat rooms or virtual round tables that could only be accessed by hosted buyers to provide attendees with an opportunity for peer-to-peer networking and prevent virtual suitcasing (non-paying exhibitors poaching VIP attendees).
- Personalized agenda to direct hosted buyers to exhibitor appointments and keynotes. Attendees can be automatically pinged on screen or via email when one meeting is about to end and another is scheduled to begin.
- One-on-one virtual appointments with senior-level exhibitors. Discussion and offerings would be geared specifically toward the needs and interests of senior level buyers.
- Ease of use. Attendees should not have to remember passwords to gain access to VIP areas. The virtual platform should recognize their names, restrict access to hosted buyers only and display the attendee’s name, company and title to enhance peer-to-peer networking.
- On call tech support. Hosted buyers should be able to press a single button to access live chat tech support and customer service.
- Other VIP attendees. Paying recognizable thought leaders, other high-profile executives, authors and recognizable industry buzz generators to engage in conversations with hosted buyers could be an attractive feature of the virtual event.
Hosted buyers at live events are required to attend certain meetings and social events. Tracking the attendance can be cumbersome for event organizers. In a virtual environment, however, attendance tracking is easier as long as there are mechanisms in place to make sure that the virtual attendee is actually the person he/she purports to be. In addition to exhibitor meetings, hosted buyers could be required to enter chat rooms, attend keynotes and download white papers. Having a variety of tasks to perform would make it more difficult for busy executives to leave the computer on “auto-pilot” for extended periods of time. A post event survey/test sent to the hosted buyer’s email, could also help to verify completion of the various virtual tasks.
The Takeaway: There is no replacement for a face-to-face exhibition, however, a virtual trade show can be a valuable tool for engaging key buyers that would not normally attend the physical show. A hosted buyer scenario, like that employed in live events, could provide the appropriate level of incentives to key buyers, not the least of which is being able to attend in the comfort of their home or office. Add cash, research, exclusive content (not available to anyone or anywhere else) and an easy to navigate platform and, “on paper,” the idea has merit. Due diligence is required on the part of the organizer to identify key buyers. Exhibitors would be required to tailor offerings to a VIP audience and platform providers would need to make adjustments for recognizing, segregating and servicing high value attendees from the rest of the non-hosted audience.
I would love to hear from live event organizers, exhibitors, VIP attendees and virtual event platform providers. Could this work?