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Novice Navigates Industry’s First Virtual Expo

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November 3, 2010 by   Leave a Comment

Expo resumes at noon today.

Expo resumes at noon today.

Editor’s Note: Steve Bibler, editor of Woodall’s Campground Management and web editor of RVBUSINESS.com, participated along with a host of other people in the RV park and campground business this week in the Virtual Outdoor Hospitality Expo conducted on the Internet at www.outdoorhospitalityexpo.com. The online expo resumes at noon (EST) – and concludes at 6 p.m. – today. Here are a few of his impressions on this new age type of convention, an ethereal event to which no one travels and everyone, at least by design, benefits.

The “phone” rang around 12:15 p.m. on Monday.

But, for the life of me, I didn’t know how to answer it.

The sound was coming from my computer and signaled that someone was visiting my “booth” in the Virtual Outdoor Hospitality Expo on the Internet.

This was just one of many frustrating experiences I encountered setting up, then navigating my first virtual expo.

The expo, a first-time attempt by East Coast businessman Art Lieberman, encountered plenty of snags — but also some bright spots.

“I have to admire Art Lieberman to have the chutzpah to take the initiative, finance this and do something no one else in the industry has been willing to do,” said Peter Pelland, owner of Pelland Advertising, Haydenville, Mass., and an event co-organizer.

“I embraced it. I knew there were a lot of risks going into uncharted territory. We knew we were all taking some significant risks. There could be thousands of people, they could crash the software and who knows what? On the other hand there could be nobody showing up. The reality has been somewhere in between.”

On the upside, 1,129 visitors reportedly visited the expo on opening day. And some of the 63 exhibitors did succeed in doing business at the expo.

On the downside, there were “horrible software issues,” said Pelland.

“There were lots of problems on opening day,” he added. “There was so little support (from the software provider) that nobody knew how it was suppose to work.”

Organizers spent most of Sunday trying to iron out the bugs in the software, while tech support was essentially absent, Pelland said.

A panel discussion scheduled for Monday had to be reset for Tuesday, and the system crashed mid-way through the rescheduled event, he noted. The quality of archived presentations was also below average, he added.

“The company that provided the software, I don’t think anyone is pleased or would return to in the future,” Pelland noted. “Given those limitations, even people who have had a less-than-stellar experience still think we’re on the right track. It can only get better year to year.”

Visitors and exhibitors had mixed comments.

Jeff Krug, a campground owner from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, visited the expo on Monday and was disappointed by his visit.

“Unfortunately, for me it was very frustrating. The idea has merit but I didn’t honestly find it as easy to navigate and get to places as I hoped it would be. I’m sure when you do the first of anything it will be hard to cover all those bases.”

Krug, otherwise, doesn’t attend trade shows to support his 34-site campground in the southeast corner of Iowa, so attending a virtual expo online at virtually no cost appealed to him. “If this works, it’s a good idea,” he said.

“If I would have been able to find it easier to navigate,” observed Krug, “I would have looked to do a little bit of business. It’s always nice to visit with people who you do business with,” he said.

He also tried to attend some of the live presentations by a host of industry speakers booked for the expo but was thwarted in his attempt to do so by nagging software issues.

John Healt, sales executive at Lodging Kit Co., Boonville, N.Y., a supplier of software for park models, helped staff the company’s booth and also visited other booths.

“It’s really a neat idea,” he said. “I like the concept. The convenience, you can’t beat. But there are a few tweaks and wishes. They need a better way to know who’s visiting the booth.”

Healt noted that his firm received “eight or nine visitors (not exhibitors) that did visit the booth and provided some contact information. We will follow up on that. If that pans out, that will be great.”

Pelland noted that exhibitors received daily reports on the number of visitors.

“We crunched the numbers and the actual number of valid prospects who came to our booth was 5% of the numbers we were led to believe,” he said. “But all said and done, that is not bad. We could go to ARVC InSites or regional shows and come out with that number and be a success.”

Pelland, as did other exhibitors, sent out a follow-up e-mail to booth visitors.

“Many of those could lead to some business,” he said.

As an exhibitor, Pelland liked “the overall look of the expo, although even there I have many, many suggestions for improvements.”

Though not involved in the selection of the software provider, Pelland said he feels confident there is a provider that could offer better software and support than the one Lieberman selected. Having said that, Pelland is concerned that the software glitches turned off some visitors who decided to leave the expo and not return.

“I’ve gotten feedback form clients as well as fellow exhibitors,” he said. “They’ve got some concerns. This was good as a first attempt, but if this is going to happen a second time, we better smooth out a lot of rough edges. Again, I have nothing but admiration for Art to get this flying. He deserves a whole lot of credit.”

“Despite the problems with software and no real expectations, there was nothing historical to compare it with,” Pelland concluded. “I’m very pleased my company has been involved and we would do it again in a minute.”

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