The Virtual Conference: Filling the Tradeshow Void

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The Virtual Conference is transforming the traditional Autumn tradeshow season. Glen Smith wonders how the latest tech might be deployed to make them more compelling and capable of engaging wider audiences?

Tradeshows have long been a feature of the CAD and manufacturing space. I’ve personally attended many, in locations across the world, both as an exhibitor and an attendee: Solid Modelling, Pacific Design Show, Packaging Automation, DEVELOP3D Live and Solidworks World, to name just a few.

All bar one followed much the same formula: Presentations given in a hall and rows of booth space manned by hopeful staff.

Looking back, the one event that deviated from this norm was back in 2010. There’s no point in asking me where it was held, because it was a virtual trade show. Strictly speaking, it was hosted from somewhere in Asia, and a couple of us had to set our alarms, in order to get up in the middle of the night to staff our virtual exhibition booth in that timezone. Doing so involved turning on an avatar, to show we were there.

This virtual conference booth had a basic graphic area with a logo and a strapline, plus a TV screen where visitors to the booth could watch a rolling video. You could see the avatars moving jerkily around the auditorium and trade hall.

If you felt bold enough to strike up a conversation with a fellow attendee, you could click on their avatar and a chat window would open. But we found that scary. Would they type back?

It took me right back to being a lad of 9 years old, when we used to ring Auntie Bessie’s doorbell, then scarper as fast as we could, before she could see us or catch us.


So, at this 2010 virtual event, being hosted thousands of miles away from Yorkshire, in what was for us the middle of the night, we tried to engage with virtual beings and we felt scared.

We weren’t sure of booth etiquette and secretly hoped they wouldn’t play! I think we got 23 leads in total.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad we took part. In fact, the experience is proving very relevant and valuable now, 10 years on.

Thanks to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, Go to Webinar and many others, virtual meetings are something we’ve all become very used to in 2020. In tech terms, 10 years is like dog years or actually much shorter – thank goodness!

Today, we’re now falling over ourselves to find new and better ways to engage with others virtually – because we can’t, or don’t want to, travel.

I didn’t want to mention The Virus, but it’s hard not to. The uptake in virtual meetings this year has been huge. They’ve become the norm in work and for engaging with family and friends. Technology has helped us all stay connected.

I’ve noticed a shift in attitudes, too. More people are using webcams, making it easier to gauge reactions through body language – albeit on a screen and looking slightly ridiculous in oversized headphones.

We’re certainly more forgiving when we see people working in their kitchen, or when a meeting is interrupted by the Amazon delivery guy or a barking dog. And of course, I’m a big fan of screen-sharing, in order to show off our 3D software.

In October/November, my team and I typically attend a wide range of industry events. In 2019, we travelled to 53 events in 14 countries, with 22 different resellers, and covering many thousands of miles between us. These events have always been a big part of our year.

We enjoy the informal chatter, checking in on how the last year has been, keeping a finger on the pulse of the health of the industry and players in it, as well as sharing an after-show beer with our hosts and fellow exhibitors.

More people are using webcams, making it easier to gauge reactions through body language – albeit on screen and looking slightly ridiculous in oversized headphones

This year, those same events are being transformed into a ‘virtual conference’. We’ve been offered booths that we can brand with graphics, along with areas to play videos, and engage with visitors.

The concept sounds very similar to our 2010 Asia-Pac experience, but the delivery of course is many thousands of pixels and megabits better. 10 years on, I’m looking forward to seeing how the latest technology is being harnessed to make virtual events engaging and valuable.

Right at the beginning of lockdown, we reimagined our own annual training event as a virtual one. We’re already working on dynamic content for the next one, in April 2021 – whether it’s physical, virtual or blended.

Hosting our last event online enabled us to reach a much wider audience and gave more people from all over the world the chance to join in. We also have an opportunity to reduce travel and improve communities and engagement, by increasing learning and networking opportunities for everyone.

So maybe we’ll meet on a TV screen in the UK in November, or in virtual Nashville for 3D Experience World next year.

If you do sign up, be sure to stop by our booth for a chat or a virtual beer. Don’t just ring the bell and run away!

Get in touch:

Glen Smith is CEO of DriveWorks.

We agree entirely about missing physical events. A fond memory of Al’s is sitting after a particularly grueling Solidworks World, and chatting to Glen, both in recovery mode, and thinking, “This lad is going places.”

Get in touch at or @driveworks

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