From file "024_pss" entitled "PWvirtual.qxd" page 01
From file "024_pss" entitled "PWvirtual.qxd" page 01

Most dealers understand the benefits of a trade show—seeing products up close, conversing with reps one on one, and scoring a few primo promo deals. But imagine being able to experience all of those things from the comfort of your office chair. Emery-Waterhouse, an independent hardlines distributor based in Portland, Maine, did just that last August, hosting a virtual trade show for its dealer-customers that provided most of the benefits of the real thing, but in an efficient format that saved time and money for attendees and vendors.

Emery-Waterhouse hosts a traditional show each winter and uses catalogs in lieu of an in-person event in late summer. Looking for a way to remain on par with competitors that hold multiple shows a year, the distributor began researching online events as a way to supplement its fall catalog; it eventually signed on with Bannockburn, Ill._based InXpo, which produces and hosts Internet trade shows.

Like a traditional, in-person trade show, Emery-Waterhouse's virtual expo allowed attendees to navigate the exhibit “floor” (above), enter booths, pick up product information, converse with reps, and make purchases. (Photo copyright 2005 InXpo, LLC. All rights reserved. Powered by InXpo)

Technological under workings aside, the online trade show format is fairly simple for users—it has a familiar interface for anyone who has used a computer along with the traditional interactions of a real show. Attendees have a bird's eye view of the exhibit “floor” and its “booths”; they roam the show as an icon (a picture of themselves or an “emoticon”) and enter a booth by clicking on the vendor's logo. Once inside, the participants have a number of options just as they would in person: clicking on tabs leads to product information and purchasing, brochure downloads, and show specials. Vendors, meanwhile, are alerted when an attendee enters their booth. Both exhibitors and attendees can initiate conversations with each other, via an e-mail system or instant messenger, and they also can exchange virtual business cards. At-show e-mails and V-cards are automatically saved for participants to access later.

“We wanted to come up with a more efficient way for everyone—for us, our customers, and our vendors—to have a trade show,” says Emery senior vice president Don Dickson. Emery's online show offered most of the benefits of a real show, including product information exchange, buying negotiation, and personal contact, but without the costs of travel and, for vendors, setup and materials.

Another bonus you won't find on a real exhibit floor: real-time reporting. As they are conversing with a customer online, vendors can view company information, purchasing history, and more. “It's a phenomenal channel for this type of technology,” says InXpo co-founder and executive vice president Adam Mankoff. “It gives the representative the data to effectively and efficiently drive the sales.” Attendees, meanwhile, can keep track of purchases and view their account for purchasing history.

Naturally, the industry's so-called aversion to new technologies meant there was some inherent risk in the venture. To combat any anxiety by participants, Emery-Waterhouse project manager Stephanie Cochrane, who facilitated most of the in-house coordination and marketing of the show, conducted training sessions for all participants.

Emery-Waterhouse also opted to not utilize all of InXpo's capabilities right away so as not to overwhelm attendees. Next year, the distributor plans to allow exhibitors to have video product demos. Other features InXpo offers include real-time educational sessions, live speakers, participation-based giveaways, and, by next year, the ability to speak to other participants through a microphone.

Even with the potential technology turnoff, the online show was a success for Emery, with more than double the expected attendance and sales 32 percent higher than last year's catalog sales. Vendor registration for next summer's virtual show has already well surpassed this year's number.

Though nothing will ever replace the ever-important handshake in this business, Emery-Waterhouse is blazing a new trail for the industry, proving that dealers aren't that technologically far behind—especially when it means boosting efficiencies and profits.