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Virtual conferences bring big savings, demand innovation and creativity

Cisco tests the waters of large scale virtual conferences, which not only save a lot of money but also offer insight into what participants liked and didn't like, information that helps the conferences get better over time.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive on

Earlier this year, Cisco Systems held an annual sales meeting - but this time it didn't cough up the money for sales folks to fly in from around the globe ($$$), hail cabs ($), stay in hotel rooms ($$$), eat three meals a day ($$) and spend a few days together at a conference center ($$$$) for a few days.

Instead, it opted for a virtual conference, a Web-based event that brought some 20,000 sales employees together in an online setting that included virtual sessions, chat capabilities and even some pretty competitive interactive games tied to the conference content.  Sure, it wasn't the same sort of networking opportunity that sales folks have become accustomed to in the real world and certainly there were those who would say that the conference wasn't as effective because it was lacking the face-to-face interactions.

But Cisco called the event a success - and not just because they were able to pull it off for less than 10 percent of the cost of the physical event, from about $4,500 per person to less than $400 per person. As a first of its kind event of that magnitude, it also offered some valuable insight, using real-time analytics, on what it takes to keep people engaged and interactive and what sort of information was most valuable. Through the data, event managers knew when participants clicked away during a slow part of a keynote, when a breakout session seemed to gain some energy among participants and which were the topics of interest in executive chat sessions.

Sure, organizing an event at a convention center is no easy task but neither is this sort of event. The around-the-clock four-day event brought together 20,000 employees from across 104 countries in 24 time zones. It incorporated breakout sessions via WebEx and keynote speeches via Cisco iPTV, as well as 124 chat sessions between executives and attendees. Hard at work behind the scenes were the folks at InXpo, which provides the technology platform to pull off the virtual events in real-time, and the folks at GPJ, the marketing firm that came up with the ideas for keeping the participants engaged and interested in an online event, including the idea of a game.

The goal of these events is to "educate, share, interact, motivate and inspire the sales teams" and a competitive alternate reality game called "The Threshold" seemed to fit the bill, especially considering the largest demographic of sales is a 30-something male with a competitive edge. They had been hoping for 7,000 active participants - they got 13,000.

It was a learning experience, the company said. Now, the teams know what worked and what didn't and can go back and build a better event for the next time. And, of course, there will be a next time - for Cisco and others, too. In a report released in October, Forrester Research said virtual meetings can be "an effective marketing tool for reaching global audiences" and that they take away the "physical geographical borders in terms of distance, as well as other constraints such as visas, passports, flight delays, security issues and safety concerns. "

But Cisco also understands that there will still be the need for physical events and sees the virtual event as more of a complement, instead of a replacement. Perhaps the sales teams could meet on a smaller scale regionally but virtually on a global scale. Or maybe the annual event is trimmed down to fewer participants on-site and but beefed up for more participants to join in remotely - a true hybrid approach.

Regardless, there's real savings to be found in virtual conferences - and just because it didn't happen in Las Vegas, New Orleans or San Francisco doesn't mean that it has to be any less of an event.

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