International Meetings Go Virtual

It takes a solid three hours for Micromine, a mining software maker, to demonstrate its complex product to an internationally based clientele. That presents a big challenge for the company's sales staff when they try to generate leads at the industry's most important trade show, the three-day MINExpo International, and later convert them into face-to-face sales calls during post-show follow-up.

But at this year's event, which took place at the Las Vegas Convention Center at the end of September, Micromine's staff had a new tool in their follow-up arsenal: a virtual component that helped make their case - and seal some deals.

Live trade shows remain one of the most effective places for sales teams to get leads and reconnect with current customers. By incorporating virtual elements into these events, exhibitors and attendees are beginning to build relationships and even close deals more efficiently during the post-show follow-up process.

Throughout MINExpo, the Micromine sales staff ran demos and held meetings in private rooms to conduct more in-depth discussions, where they showed off their program's ability to manage data, control mine production, and create 3D mine designs.

But even in-depth discussions rarely cover as much ground as a client would need before making a purchase decision. And with a packed trade show schedule, it would have been less than efficient for the company to spend its time at MINExpo on just a handful of full-length demos.

"Our strategy was to get [prospects] to do a short 'sampler,' then schedule a post-show meeting to get it in front of them, be it virtually or in person, to give them the full-blown demo," says Lori Freemire, marketing executive for Micromine. "Shows are crazy, and every attendee has a hit-list of things to get to."

Freemire gives the example of a demo that the company offered in Elko, NV, earlier this year in which the Micromine sales team flew to meet with 18 professional mining engineers and run them through a three-hour virtual meeting.

In addition to the members of Micromine's U.S. sales team, who were there in person, the company also had a pair of their geo- logical and mining engineers at the company headquarters in Perth, Australia attending the meeting virtually.

"Being able to have a sales manager in one location, conducting a presentation to a prospective client in another location, and backed up by a consultant providing a demonstration from a third location, is critical in enabling us to bring the most appropriate personnel together for meetings, without the cost and logistical issues of having to get them physically there, especially when that involves traveling internationally," says Colin Smith, Micromine's regional manager for North America. "This is even more pertinent when you consider that the locations can often be spread out across the globe, as our regional offices are."

The company also recently sold a system in Mexico via a live virtual demo and many conference calls in Spanish. They conduct software trainings from Vancouver, B.C. and Santiago, Chile virtually, walking clients through all the nuances of the software.

"We had a customer a few months ago who literally patched in three different international locations because their people were spread out in several countries, and they wanted to make sure everybody was receiving the same information at the same time," says Freemire.

Extending the Reach
Micromine's use of virtual technology to bring engineers on the other side of the world into a client's office is one of the greatest strategic benefits of adding a virtual element to international meetings - whether it takes the form of a private sales demo or a keynote speech to a 10,000-person conference. Virtual meeting offerings that cross borders allow companies to incorporate a wider range of people and resources than would be possible at a live-only event.

For example, EPiC Measures, a business-to-business consultancy, has held a series of marketing showcases that were conducted live but that incorporated virtual elements that allowed it to take its programming to a global level.

Last year, the company hosted a one-day marketing conference in its headquarter city of Atlanta, featuring speakers from the Coca-Cola Company who discussed branding and marketing development. EPiC used virtual meeting technology to broadcast the discussions to business owners and marketers based in Trinidad and Cape Town, South Africa.

"In the environment that we're living in, where people are trying to grow their business and build awareness, it really is a huge expense to fly out to the States, and book a three-day conference to hear maybe one or two people you are interested in," says Isha Edwards, brand marketing consultant and business instructor for EPiC. "So why not have a virtual aspect to the meeting? All we need is an internet connection and a video camera."

At the end of September, EPiC held its third such event, at Atlanta's Microsoft Store, where marketers in attendance not only heard from a live panel of marketers, but also from a business and culture expert patched in from Johannesburg, South Africa, as well as professors dialed in from the United Kingdom.

While only the speakers have been incorporated into the meetings virtually, Edwards hopes to add virtual audiences in the future as well.

"Our goal is to be able to work with a tech sponsor in some capacity so we can have that virtual audience and in-person audience," says Edwards. "Globally, you're leveling the playing field - you're taking away any limit to someone saying, 'I can't get access to that particular market.'"

Participants in the event agree. "The cost of flying speakers in is eliminated, so money can be fueled in other directions - like marketing to attract more participants," says Keevan Lewis, vice president of BLAC Sheep Barber Salon, based in Trinidad and Tobago, who partnered with EPiC for last year's mixer. "The virtual conference allows you to interact with speakers who have a wider range of expertise and advice, which could impact a growing business group."

But Lewis cautions that a successful virtual meeting requires a fast and reliable connection, or else the entire event may have its value impacted. Also, time zone challenges must be taken into account when scheduling speakers, especially those on the other side of the world.

"Business is more global than it's ever been before," says Sean O'Brien, executive vice president of strategy and communications for PGi, which produces iMeet, the virtual meeting software platform that EPiC uses for its events. "Technology and mobility have leveled the playing field across geographic borders."

He sees this, along with greater workplace mobility, as the two "macro trends" that have encouraged wider adoption of the company's offerings and others like them. As more organizations seek to reach international clients and leverage global resources, he expects demand to rise further and for the technology to be there.

"Tools like HD video, cell phone technology where you can talk through your internet connection, and the advent of cloud-based file storage, all help drive adoption at the user level," says O'Brien. "Small businesses in the U.S. can compete for customers in small towns of Indonesia. The trend toward the globalization of virtual meetings is real."

In-Person Still Irreplaceable
With virtual meetings technology steadily improving and the savings so attractive, concerns naturally arise that virtual meetings might eat into attendance at in-person events, if not replace them completely.

Carol McGury, executive director of the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG), as well as the senior vice president of education and learning services for event planning company SmithBucklin, (the management partner for IOUG, has run into these questions as she has begun making sessions at the IOUG's annual conference available online. She describes speaking to her board of directors, who were concerned that registrations might drop as more individuals prefer to just watch the sessions from the comfort of their home or office. She feels these concerns are overblown.

"You can't replace the networking, the drinking a beer in a bar, the chatting with the speaker afterward and walking down the hallway with this virtual experience," says McGury.

Her assertion is backed up by a study by the Virtual Edge Institute, which looked at whether offering virtual meetings would cannibalize live attendance. Participants in the Virtual Edge Summit hybrid meeting were asked whether they would attend virtually if the live option were not available, and 78 percent said they would. When the virtual attendees were asked if they would attend the live event if the online option were not available, 93 percent said they would not. This reflects that the virtual audience was an additional attendee base, not the same group that would attend the live event.

Additionally, virtual events require different skill sets than what works in a live setting. When McGury is deciding which sessions to make available virtually, she seeks out prominent speakers who have presented sessions before.

"It's not easy to present in a virtual environment," says McGury. "You may have a physical audience in front of you, but you also have to make sure that you are managing the virtual audience."

Nick Morgan, communications coach at Public Words and author of Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, agrees that, at least where the technology is currently, many aspects about the in-person experience simply don't translate over video.

"Humans rely unconsciously on human presence to read each others' intentions and body language - it lets us know how confident or nervous they are, who's up or who's down, who's authoritative," says Morgan. "Charisma is not something that comes as clearly in virtual as it does in person."

He adds that virtual events are best as one component of a broader meetings offering. He believes that while virtual might be able to enhance a meeting where work needs to get done efficiently, when there is a more emotional component (whether for teambuilding or engaging through a presentation), the technology still creates a distance that can take away from providing a serious long-term impact.

"What I tell people is: use virtual stuff for the regular routine parts of your meetings, but go face-to-face for the important, emotional milestones, the big deals, the hiring and firing," he says.

Freemire agrees that in-person events remain a vital part of the company's offerings. In particular, the live MINExpo show serves as an irreplaceable opportunity for an in-person connection between the company's more far-flung members, including CEO Kevin Fitzpatrick, based in the company's Perth headquarters. It is an ideal time for Fitzpatrick to fly in and get face time with prominent members of the mining industry.

"He spends quite a bit of time here in the States getting to know our clients, 'glad- handing' as it were," says Freemire. "You still need that in person."