Trade Shows Go Virtual at ON24; The Civilized Alternative to Second Life?

11/3/11Follow @wroush

The boardroom windows at ON24 look out over San Francisco’s Moscone Center, the city’s largest convention complex. Every year, Moscone is home to giant events like Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, Oracle OpenWorld, Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce, and the MacWorld Expo; in fiscal year 2009-2010, more than 919,000 registered event attendees visited the complex.

But as busy as Moscone is, the number of business people who travel to trade shows and conventions is actually dropping. Moscone’s 2009-2010 attendance was down almost 20 percent compared to 2007-2008 levels. The economy is partly to blame, of course—but so is technology. In 2009, Cisco Systems canceled two San Francisco events and said it would hold digital conferences instead, saving $50 million. And in the growing movement to replace big, expensive physical events with cheaper virtual ones—where the booths are made from bits and attendees let their mice and keyboards do the walking—ON24 wants to take the lead.

ON24 CEO Sharat Sharan

After surviving a brush with death back in 2002, ON24 emerged as one of the country’s leading providers of webcasting technology, which allows companies to stage live online presentations and webinars for employees, trainees, or sales prospects. On the strength of that business, which brings in at least $25 million in revenues every year, the 275-employee company became profitable back in 2009, and is still growing at 25 to 30 percent per year, according to CEO Sharat Sharan.

But whereas a webcast might last 45 minutes, a virtual event can go on for a day, a week, a month, or forever—providing many more opportunities for the host to collect leads that might turn into sales down the road. So ON24 is aggressively pushing its newer “Virtual Show” and “Virtual Briefing Center” technologies, which are both built on a newly overhauled back-end called Platform 10.

This month ON24 is gearing up for VUE2011, a virtual show about virtual shows. Slated for November 17, VUE2011 will be emceed by the San Francisco Giants’ shaggy-bearded relief pitcher Brian Wilson and will be set amidst 3D simulations of San Francisco landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chinatown Gate on Grant Street (see the video on page 3 of this story). In Wilson’s honor, the conference’s tagline will be “Fear the beard, not the technology.” (Of course, after the Giants’ lackluster 2011 season, the beard has lost a bit of its fearsomeness.)

“What we do better than anybody else in the world is live virtual events,” says Sharan. Webcasts are still “the foundation” of the business, he says, but ON24 is growing into a “one-stop shop for webcasting, virtual events, virtual briefing centers, demand generation, corporate communications, and training.” If the flying avatars, corporate islands, and virtual stores of Second Life represented a wild, uncontrolled experiment in virtual commerce and communication, ON24 is the company coming along behind with a broom, civilizing and detoxifying the virtual-spaces concept for business users and serious marketers.

But to someone from the dot-com boom years, when ON24 was founded, the current company would be unrecognizable. It started out in 1998 as a distribution hub for … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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