The Convergence Of Physical Events And Virtual Events


In May, SAP’s annual SAPPHIRE conference (SAPPHIRE 09) floored physically in Orlando, Florida, with a concurrent virtual event online.  This week, Cisco’s annual Cisco Live conference followed suit, with a physical event in San Francisco, California and a concurrent virtual event online.

Full disclosure: My company (InXpo) was the virtual event platform provider for both the SAPPHIRE and Cisco Live virtual events – and, I worked on the Cisco Live virtual event.

During a presentation at the Virtual Edge Summit in May, a presenter from SAP noted that considerations were made concerning the potential of cannibalization – whereby physical attendees may stay at home to attend virtually instead.  However, he noted that in reality, a combination of physical and virtual event extended the overall reach – and the virtual component served to augment the overall attendance count.  When combined (physical+virtual), this year’s attendee count for SAPPHIRE was the largest ever.

This week, I attended Cisco Live on-site, but spent most of my time online to support the virtual event.  However, in experiencing all the touch points of the event, it quickly occurred to me that the entire notion of physical vs. virtual is blurring – they’re coming together to form an aggregate attendee experience.

Some participants are not able to travel to the event’s venue – and as such, their only choice is to participate in a virtual component.  For those on-site, they can choose the attendee path that suits their preferences.  Perhaps that means attending the John Chambers keynote in person, grabbing a cup of coffee, visiting the World of Solutions (exhibit floor) and then returning to the hotel room to login to the virtual event, to follow up with a few exhibitors in their virtual booth.  Later, that same attendee may visit the customer apprecation event in Second Life, and then attend a tweetup at a nightclub (in person).  Here’s an image of my Second Life avatar at the Tuesday evening Second Life dance party:

The author's avatar with right hand raised

The author's avatar with right hand raised

To make this convergence really work, I believe the following should be done:

  1. Create a unique value proposition for each venue – virtual event, virtual world, physical event – do not simply re-purpose one into the other.  Dannette Veale explains it quite well in a Cisco Virtual Worlds blog entry, The Value of Virtual Events.
  2. Tie the venues together in a logical fashion – link the venues together where it makes sense.  Convergence should happen for a good reason – and not for the sake of convergence.
  3. Give the attendees freedom to choose – allow attendees to choose their own attendee path, without forcing them down any one direction.  Leave the hooks in place and each attendee will follow their own path.  Some physical event attendees may opt out of any convergence and focus 100% on the physical event.  Others may actively engage in the virtual event while on-site physically.  Either path is fine.
  4. Integrate social media across the spectrum – whether it’s Visible  Tweets displayed on a physical monitor or Facebook integration with the virtual event – integrating social media increases engagement within the attendee experience and also extends the reach of the event to networks of social networks.  Here’s an interesting example of user generated, social media at the physical event – a physical whiteboard that asked attendees to write about where they were in 1989:


In Cisco Live Virtual, elements of the physical event were streamed into the virtual event.  By doing so, virtual event attendees (who could not travel to San Francisco) were still able to get a taste of the physical event experience.  For instance, webcams were deployed throughout the physical event to stream in live feeds from the show floor – and to host personalized webcam chats with Cisco executives.  One of the webcams was pointed at this Solutions Theater – from which virtual event attendees had a continous live stream of presentations given throughout the day:


Here are some of the ways I experienced physical/virtual event convergence:

  1. Watching John Chambers’ keynote presentation online, via a Live Webcast streamed into the virtual event (by On24).
  2. Viewing a Cisco Live Second Life session (LIVE!) from a booth in the virtual event – the session was broadcast by in Quicktime – so users needed the Quicktime player but not the Second Life client application.
  3. Watching a live (physical) demo of Telepresence, which was broadcast via a Live Video Webcast, which was carried within the virtual event (many layers of convergence there).
  4. Participating in live chat sessions that Cisco executives (Carlos Dominguez and Padmasree Warrior [separately]) attended via webcam.  Attendees typed their questions (via text) and the executives answered via webcam / audio.  The executives answered just about every question posed, so it felt like a personal meet and greet with the executives.
  5. Walking past the NetQoS physical booth – and noticing one of their demo workstations displaying their booth in the virtual event.  Quite a good idea – host visitors to your physical booth and remind them of your presence in the virtual event.  That prospect can’t return to your physical booth next week (when the event is over), but they sure can visit your booth in the virtual event [at any time] to find the needed information.
  6. Reading one user’s in-show blog, where he asked physical attendees to name the “one [physical] booth that should not be missed”.  This particular user was not able to attend physically – but, he may be able to visit the virtual booths of the vendors recommended by his peers.

Moving forward, I expect to see many more events follow this model – whereby physical events will leverage virtual event and virtual worlds technologies to accomplish the following:

  1. Deliver additional value to the physical event
  2. Extend the reach of the event to a global audience
  3. Blend physical and virtual components to create a more compelling experience
  4. Drive stronger event revenue and ROI!

I hope to see you at a future event – I haven’t decided whether I’ll be there physically, virtually or both.

5 Responses to The Convergence Of Physical Events And Virtual Events

  1. William Fellman says:

    I had the opportunity to visit the Virtual World (Cisco Live). Honestly, I didn’t care for the environment. Last year Cisco also had a Virtual World and it was much better. The overall “realistic” look and feel made me feel like I was really there. I think the platform was from a different company. If you ask me, I’m a big fan of Cisco Live, however I wish they stuck with the old platform.

  2. Dennis Shiao says:

    William – thanks for the input – I work for the company whose platform is powering this year’s Cisco Live Virtual. And yes, last year, the virtual event used a different platform.

    My biased opinion is that the environment looked pretty good – and that the functionality and features incorporated into the overall experience would (I hope) make virtual-only attendees feel like they’re “really there”.

  3. Virtual Event Key Learnings…

    With it being just about a month since the Cisco Live live hybrid event I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what worked, and what did not work. So below is my list of a few of my key learnings with more to come as we continue debriefs and p…

  4. […] events.  I wrote about learnings and observations from Cisco Live and Networkers Virtual, in which virtual and physical blended together.  In 2010, I expect to see many more hybrid events, with event planners leveraging creative ways […]

  5. […] While virtual events occur on the web without a physical (face-to-face) component, some event planners are creating hybrid event experiences, whereby a face-to-face event is combined with a virtual component.  The virtual component can occur before, during or after the face-to-face event – when done concurrent to the physical event, interesting opportunities arise for blending the physical and virtual experiences. […]

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