Becoming virtual visitorsAs show season advances toward us, print industry consultant Malcolm McReath asks whether we really need to trudge miles to physically attend these events, or whether online virtual visiting is becoming a more attractive proposition.
I did not attend the Print '09 exhibition in Chicago in person, but one thing that impressed me was the good use that many suppliers involved with the show made of the Internet. With many of the exhibitors it was possible to enter their 'stands' over the Web by means of a virtual display which was arranged in such a way that it was just like walking onto their booth. Once there, you could then move around the exhibits that interested you, selecting just the ones you wanted to know more about. With these you could start a video to give you a demonstration of the product or software of interest - and in the best cases this was very comprehensive and you would see far more than you would have done if you had made a personal visit to the show. There were facilities available for virtual visitors to ask for further information or even ask detailed technical questions by e-mail, and in the best cases a full response came back within minutes.
I have to say that I was impressed with this system, and I can see it developing further very quickly. Where the virtual display is well arranged and managed, many of the frustrations that frequently arise on an exhibition stand are overcome. Who has not had the experience of trying to see a product only to find that another visitor is hogging it and you cannot get to see it working? Added on to that, when you really want to speak to a techie, all you can get is a salesman who has little knowledge of the product you are interested in but a strong determination to sell you something! This type of experience repeated a few times makes sure that much of your day at an exhibition is wasted, and you frequently go away with many of your questions left unanswered and a lot of work still to do.
I think exhibitions are very important, but I can see events like Ipex changing in the future, as they will have to take account of the capability to virtually exhibit both hardware and software to interested parties without them ever having to leave their workplace.
On the other hand, you may be able to get all the information that you need from a well-arranged virtual site, but what is lacking is the opportunity to network and bounce ideas off of other colleagues that you may have known for many years. I can remember that in the early '90's there were the Seybold events in the USA which attracted very high attendance from all over the world. This was at a time of rapid change and development in the graphic arts industry when computerisation of applications and processes really got going. It was not the exhibition that attracted the visitors; it was the quality of the seminars and the debates and the opportunity to share experiences and ideas in small groups with others who faced challenges and situations similar to your own that got you to attend.
We face rapid change and development in the industry again today particularly in wide-format, and I think this will bring about a change in the way exhibitions function in the future if they are to survive.