This year we aren't off to sunny Spain

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The Independent Online

The World Bank's decision to host its annual development conference in cyberspace in a bid to avoid the violent attentions of protesters marks the coming of age for online events.

Perhaps some people were miffed at the idea of missing out on a few days in sunny Barcelona, having to respond instead to imperfect video images of delegates on a computer screen. But, apparently, the event went without a hitch. And the cyber equivalent of a petrol bomb, which was threatened, did not materialise either.

The irony is that it has taken the spectre of hooded protesters hurling chunks of concrete for a big organisation to recognise the benefits of using the internet. After all, the internet is probably the medium best suited to the transfer of information. It's hardly surprising, then, that in the IT world, web events and seminars have become as common as that other definer of IT – mystifying acronyms.

The popularity of cyber happenings can be gauged by attending a conventional trade show. Last year these were definitely places to avoid. They were usually so packed, with delegates being assailed from all directions, that they resembled a riot in Trafalgar Square, only better dressed.

These days the delegates are gone and the only thing now missing from such events – apart from the people – is a lonely tumbleweed being blown along the empty aisles. The reasons are manifold – the dark cloud of economic recession cannot be discounted – but not least among them is a greater understanding of just what e-business applications can do.

So where have all the people gone? They haven't stopped searching and enquiring, that's for sure, but many are in front of their PCs, logging on to online seminars. Economically it makes much more sense, especially for small and medium enterprises.

These companies can now go back to the task of running their business, and valuable employee time is saved as staff no longer have to visit shows or hang out on exhibition stands. Every interest, no matter how fleeting, is automatically captured, and information is digested and understood at leisure rather than in the presence of a salesman desperate to make a sale.

Virtual events are set to boom. One big show, www. crm2001online.com, has received more than 16,000 visitors since its launch at the start of this year. Siebel, the customer relationship management (CRM) vendor, alone received 622 leads in a single month. The average spend by an exhibitor is £1,250, and 91 per cent of visitors are bona fide rather than company employees or web analysis robots.

The cost of exhibiting online, while seemingly high – between £5,000 and £15,000 – compares favourably with the average cost of £30,000 for a stand at one of the big London venues. With many companies now drawing in their horns, the appeal is obvious.

While the CRM show is a major event, web seminars have become almost de rigueur within the IT community and are just waiting to be exploited in other industries. For forward-looking small and medium-sized businesses, there are significant benefits, and not only financial ones. The online seminar has a live feel to it, is available 365 days a year and gives potential customers a direct link to a company's products or services.

This column is provided by TBC Research, an events, publishing and research company. Contact www.tbcresearch.com

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