Avatars98 shows you virtual business world
January 19, 1999
by Megan Barnett
(IDG) -- On the surface, it sounds like a typical trade show. Four thousand people strolling by 48 exhibitor booths, chatting with fellow attendees, quizzing speakers and networking at parties. This particular event, though, isn't exactly typical. Instead of the usual hotel meeting rooms, this conference took place entirely over the Web.
The occasion is Avatars98, an event sponsored by the Contact Consortium, an organization based in Scotts Valley, Calif., focused on the development of human contact, community and culture in cyberspace. After hosting the conference in exhibit halls in San Francisco during the previous two years, the organization decided to practice what it preaches.
Virtual conferences, online roadshows, live streaming video – slowly but surely, the Web is making inroads into the way business people do what they do best – hold meetings. The idea has intriguing possibilities. Digital meetings can save time and money over face-to-face meetings. For that reason alone, the prospect of holding meetings and conferences over the Web will get a serious look from many businesses.
For now, online meetings also have novelty value, which enables them to draw a crowd. With the move to the Web, for instance, attendance at Avatars98 increased tenfold over the previous year, and the number of exhibitors more than doubled. "We received a resounding response," says Bruce Damer, CEO of Santa Cruz-based DigitalSpace, which produced the event.
Damer says the event took five weeks to produce. Two Vancouver-based construction workers were hired to design the virtual exhibit hall. Exhibitors selected booths from several styles and customized them using a standard Web form. After downloading free software – Active Worlds from Circle of Fire Studios – attendees entered the conference hall as virtual beings, with virtual name tags atop their virtual heads.
Because the Contact Consortium is a nonprofit organization, attendance was free. Only a portion of the exhibitors paid for booths on the exhibit floor. Damer estimates that, armed with a team of volunteers, the entire production cost $15,000, significantly less than the prior year's more lightly attended San Francisco conference, which cost upwards of $80,000.
While it seems unlikely that mainstream tech trade shows like Comdex or the Consumer Electronics Show will be held exclusively online anytime soon, the potential for holding meetings over the Net has captured the attention of conference planners. And with the rise of streaming media and faster Internet access, a growing population of software vendors is providing digital conferencing services.
Worldwide Corporate Network, for instance, has set up a virtual community for businesses. "We've created a network that allows companies to interact inside gated communities," explains Lou Cattaruzza, CEO of the New York-based company. Many of Worldwide's clients are trade associations, which use the company's services to bring their members together over the Internet.
Members of the Biotechnology Industry Association, which represents more than 800 biotech-related organizations, have the option to join Worldwide's network for $895 a year. In return, members gain admission to four conferences held in the Worldwide Corporate Network virtual exhibit halls. They also can produce and distribute a five-minute audio presentation, access software for scheduling meetings with other members and set up personal Web pages. The exhibit hall holds conferences and panels hosted by other members, as well as by Worldwide itself. There are videos of both real-world and Web-only events.
The proliferation of free streaming-media software from RealNetworks and Microsoft has germinated a crop of start-ups focusing on the development, production and broadcast of events online. Everything from product launches to Congressional hearings can be seen and heard in real time over the Net. It's all made possible by the magic of streaming, media.
Broadcast.com provides hosting services for a wide range of audio and video content providers. Among other things, the company offers streaming-multimedia services for businesses broadcasting events over the public Internet or a corporate intranet. In fact, nearly half of Broadcast.com's revenue – $2 million of the company's 1998 third quarter revenue of $4.5 million – came from broadcasting business events.
In addition to transmitting press conferences, shareholder meetings and training seminars, Broadcast.com provides services to large trade shows like Internet World, transmitting keynote speeches live and makes them available afterward for replay.
Virtual conferencing "allows companies to capture names and information from people who will become targets for future events," says Stan Woodward, VP of business services at Broadcast.com. "It doesn't minimize the audience, it taps into new markets. People will still go to shows [in person] to be with their peers."
Broadcast.com charges between $10,000 and $50,000 to broadcast an event, depending on the length and complexity of the presentation.
Online meetings have been catching on among smaller conferences aimed at more targeted audiences. Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research firm, offers Internet-based videos and seminars on a pay-per-view basis.
Financial institutions and other conference organizers can extend their events to clients around the globe by providing password-protected access. "How else can we expand an audience without overcrowding the room?" asks Danielle Busignani, Web communications manager for NationsBanc Montgomery Securities. The San Francisco-based investment bank last year broadcast select events from four of its investment conferences over the Web.
Veracast Communications, formerly NextWave Communications, provided the production services for Montgomery and hosted the events on its own Web site. Clients logged on to the conference from the investment bank's Web site, which linked them to a Veracast page designed to include the look and feel of Montgomery's own site.
Brokerage firms like Montgomery are finding value in broadcasting investment roadshows for their clients over the Web. When companies issue stock or bond offerings, they spend considerable time and money on the road, giving presentations to potential investors, typically with the aid of detailed PowerPoint presentations. The roadshow meetings give institutional and retail investors an opportunity to learn the issuing company's business model and to meet their executives. Companies and their investment bankers will typically visit as many as 20 cities during the whirlwind tour.
Until recently, though, only investors in major cities were given the opportunity to attend roadshow presentations. Brad Hammond, founder of Net Roadshow, started thinking about this opportunity gap while he worked as an institutional salesman for Morgan Stanley. Hammond says he recognized that the Internet could provide a platform to deliver these presentations to clients all over the world.
To broadcast a roadshow presentation, Net Roadshow producers come to an investment bank, videotape management's speech and gather the slides. The vendor produces the show and hosts the password-protected site for the period of time the company is "on the road." The prospectus and other company information are downloadable from the customized roadshow site. The video is delivered using Microsoft Media Player or RealNetworks RealPlayer.
The cost of the virtual roadshow runs under $20,000 – less than the cost of visiting just one city during a traditional roadshow. Net Roadshow has produced more than 150 shows since it launched, and boasts an impressive roster of clients, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, J.P. Morgan and NationsBanc Montgomery.
Still, "it's too early to know how [much of an improvement] it is," says Revell Horsey, senior managing director on Montgomery's syndicate desk. Montgomery has produced seven digital roadshows during the last six months it has been a client of Net Roadshow. "I didn't have high expectations, but it has been used by small and large accounts," he says. "It saves management time and wear and tear. But the user of the product needs to be more comfortable." Horsey is confident that will happen as younger people enter the business.
The most recent Montgomery client to use the service was Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, which completed its initial public offering in early December. According to Horsey, 30 clients viewed the Ticketmaster road show over the Internet, including investors in London, Tokyo and Amsterdam.
The real benefit of the digital roadshow is the savings in travel time and expense. "It's not necessarily a great use of management's time to go to Europe," Horsey says. The Net Roadshow service is particularly attractive for international clients and for IPOs of smaller companies, which may have a more limited budget for such presentations.
Brad Hamberg, CFO of Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, says he would recommend the service to others, although he admits that measuring results is difficult at this stage. "It's nice to have it today, but you don't need to do it today," he says. CitySearch actually used the service twice: both for the IPO and for the announcement of the Ticketmaster merger with CitySearch.
Roadshows and conferences are just a sampling of the organized events extending their reach to the Net. Online-only events, like Avatars98, could become more common as 3D and streaming technologies improve.
But even the most tech-savvy conferences are a long way from abandoning hotels and convention centers in favor of the digital world. If nothing else, attendees aren't prepared to skip the cocktails and free T-shirts that come with a registration badge. And as far as investor roadshows are concerned, the dealmakers who call the shots by looking into the whites of your eyes are not likely to disappear into cyberspace just yet.
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