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Virtual trade shows

An electrical problem has shut down Amtrak and closed the northeast corridor tracks into New York.” Those were the words I heard one morning at 5 a.m. as I got into the shower and turned on both the hot water and my shower radio. An inveterate news junky, the shower radio is always set to the local all-news station and provides my first fix of the day. As I stepped under the hot spray, the newscaster's words elicited a “What? Oh, no!”

It was the opening day of SMPTE's 2nd Annual International Conference on Stereoscopic 3-D for Media and Entertainment, which was held at the Broadway Millenium Hotel in New York City — a convenient walk from Penn Station. Rather than fighting the morning drive traffic, my plan — a good one at the time or so I thought — was to opt for the more civilized commute of a relaxing train ride into Penn Station via the now unfortunately stilled northeast corridor rail tracks. Well, that obviously was not going to work, especially after an updated news report said that repairs would likely be completed later in the morning, but there would still be significant schedule delays throughout the day.

Time for Plan B: the unrelaxed and definitely uncivil drive into Manhattan. Better listen to the traffic report. Surprise! The rail shutdown has created significant delays at the bridges and tunnels going into Manhattan and all the arteries on the New Jersey side feeding them.

At that point, figuring the morning and possibly more was a certain loss, it was time to take a look at the agenda to assess what sessions I was going to miss. As I brought up the conference schedule on my iMac, I couldn't help but think how expedient it would have been to attend the sessions in virtual fashion from the comfort of my office chair. No train schedule hassles, no drive time frazzle, no need for anything other than jeans and sneaks.

Personally, attending a virtual trade show is an option that I really would only exercise in an emergency. The opportunity for face-to-face interaction and discussion with industry colleagues during breaks in between the technical sessions and at the organized social functions is almost as important as the sitting, listening and learning aspects of the sessions themselves. But there is an argument to be made that in the event of last-minute delays or for those with restricted travel budgets in today's tight economy, attending a virtual conference is better than no conference at all.

Clearly, not without complications for the organizers, providing a virtual attendance option to a live event requires discipline, particularly on the part of the presenters. Slides and presentation materials need to be submitted sufficiently in advance in order to enable day of the event availability to the online attendees. Having previously served in various roles as a session organizer, panel moderator and a presenter guilty of turning in late slides (mea culpa), I know how daunting of a task this can be.

Also, let's not overlook the practical considerations. A technical conference is designed not only to impart information to the attendees, but also it serves as a revenue generator for the conference hosting organization. And, that revenue is most important in that it allows the host to organize future sessions for attendee education and to provide forums for technology developers and venues for presenters. Thus, a reasonable stipend for online session attendance is something to be expected and accepted. Who knows? Paid online attendance might even offer an exciting new revenue opportunity for conference organizers who could then invest in even better conference events.

But back to the SMPTE 3-D conference. SMPTE recently announced its YouTube channel (nice to see our fundamental standards body actually using the media whose technology it oversees!), and you can find an excerpt or two from the conference there. It's a far cry from an online attendance option but perhaps a great first step. Opting to get there at all costs, I set out driving only to encounter a huge construction delay followed by a bumper-to-bumper crawl due to a traffic accident. Finally, concluding it was just not meant to be, I disappointedly turned back toward my home office with visions, unfortunately not to be realized, of sitting there comfortably in those jeans and sneaks attending the conference. My long-term colleague and dear friend SMPTE president Pete Ludé, are you listening?

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

Send questions and comments to: anthony.gargano@penton.com