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 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
and Microsoft (MSFT)
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,
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
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 (IT),
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
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 (MER),
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
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
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
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.
Broadcasting over the Web is getting easier, but the technology
still is far from perfect. A recent survey asked 47 webmasters,
"What is your biggest Webcasting-related headache?" Here's what they