Merging Virtual and Live Meetings
The virtual world has long been associated with playtime (think video games and Second Life avatars). While being able to fly—virtually, of course—through your next sales meeting is an amusing idea, serious business applications involving virtual technology have been slow to take off. But when GE Healthcare sought a new way to connect with customers at the Radiological Society of North America conference in 2009, the idea of joining a virtual environment with a live trade show booth caught the company’s attention.
“As our largest trade show presence throughout the year, RSNA always presents a challenge for us to improve over the previous year in structure, design, interactivity and web support,” says Jim Salinsky, GE’s global webmaster. “In the past, we’ve released Flash-based microsites that, while attractive, didn’t really engage our customers.”
To connect more personally with customers, especially those who couldn’t travel to RSNA due to tightened budgets, GE turned to a new concept: a “hybrid meeting” that paired its live, 30,000-square-foot booth at McCormick Place in Chicago with a mirror-image virtual environment.
As more sophisticated software enables greater interaction between live events and virtual environments, hybrid meetings are gaining popularity. Working with InXpo, a Chicago-based specialist in creating privately branded virtual events and business environments, GE crafted an experience that mimicked the action on the tradeshow floor—right down to live webcams that virtual visitors could use to check out each product area. “The virtual-live exhibit hybrid allowed us to personalize the experience while offering robust content, very similar to a visit to the physical show,” Salinsky says.
GE Healthcare had three main goals for the virtual web environment: to generate interest and excitement about the company’s presence and new product introductions at RSNA, to give customers who couldn’t attend RSNA in person the same experience, and to connect customers who planned to attend the physical show with GE representatives in advance.
Making a big splash at RSNA each year is critical to the company. GE generally sees about 10,000 customers pass through its booth during the five-day event, making this the company’s biggest annual tradeshow. “Typically for a tradeshow this size, there is a significant preshow investment in reaching out to prospects, making sure they make appointments and setting up a microsite, so it’s easier for them to navigate,” notes Mike Westcott, vice president of marketing at InXpo.
Not just another microsite
Explaining how this virtual environment would be different from—and better than—a traditional micro-site proved challenging within the company, Salinsky says. “We had to manage change internally to show that the virtual exhibit wouldn’t just be another microsite or brochureware,” he explains. “We needed to prove that it would be an exclusive experience for our customers, just as the booth was.” Training sessions helped employees grasp the value of the virtual exhibit.
In addition to providing the benefit of a more personalized experience, the virtual environment also drew heavily from materials GE Healthcare had already produced for the live event; InXpo even managed to craft the booth from the same 3-D models made by designers for the company’s physical booth. As a result, the virtual booth wound up costing about 30 percent less than a static, Flash-based microsite while yielding a much richer experience for visitors.
“It was all based on investments that were already being made,” Westcott says. “It gave the designer of the booth a way to show investments that they were already making to a much larger audience.”
The virtual exhibit opened 10 days before the live show and stayed up throughout the five days of RSNA, attracting about 4,000 clients in addition to the 10,000 who visited the live booth. Virtual visitors, represented by an icon at the bottom of the screen, could click on the different areas of the booth to explore product lines, schedule live chats and use those webcams placed in every product area to pan the action on the live show floor. The site also featured close to 20 taped demonstrations, including handheld shots of the crowd, that walked visitors through new product features and benefits. In addition, visitors could download brochures, images and case studies on the more than 25 new GE products introduced at the tradeshow. To further link the virtual and physical exhibits, the company displayed four monitors on the show floor that were tuned into the virtual exhibit, enabling live visitors to download product materials, view other parts of the booth, plan their visit and set up appointments.
GE employees—both those in McCormick Place and those who could not attend—staffed the virtual booth to engage in live chats and answer questions. A strip along the bottom of the virtual booth showed each employee’s face, name and regional territories. Those who were present in the virtual environment appeared in color, while anyone offine at the time was grayed out.
“One of the beautiful things about a virtual event is, for those unable to attend the physical event, they can staff the virtual one,” says Westcott. “You can also bring industry sector experts or other people who are very familiar with the product, like researchers, from anywhere in the world to speak with individuals in the virtual space.”
With the reality of shrinking travel budgets across the board, the virtual environment also proved to be a great way to allow a client at the live event to share product information with team members back home, Westcott adds. “Some organizations used to send a dozen or more people to these shows to shop different categories. With the economy and cutbacks, there are fewer people going to these events. So this becomes a great way to share the experience—to still send out your core decision-makers but enable them to connect with a larger team back home to see demos and engage in Q&As.”
The experiment paid off: The company realized four direct sales from the virtual booth and gained rich insight into customer behavior, says Cece Salomon-Lee, director of marketing for InXpo, who notes that visitors spent an average of about 1.5 hours at the virtual exhibit and viewed more than five product areas during a visit.
The hybrid booth was so successful, in fact, that parent company GE is encouraging its other business units to consider virtual-physical exhibitions for major events. And, of course, GE Healthcare is already looking for ways to expand and improve the use of virtual technology. As Salinsky explains, “Our mantra at GE Healthcare is that we need to push ourselves.”
JEANNE O’BRIEN COFFEY covers the meetings beat and is a former editor of several employee motivation and meetings industry publications.