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July 2001
Vol. 10, No. 07,
pp 15–16, 18.
Computers in Chemistry
A virtual trade show visit

Tips for getting the most out of conference Web sites
opening art

If you are a typical reader of Today’s Chemist at Work, you are probably unable to attend all the important industry trade shows that you would like. In the past, if you didn’t go to a conference, you gathered information on what was at the show by talking to colleagues who attended, borrowing someone’s book of abstracts, checking journals for new instrument advertisements, and reading roundup articles in the trade press. Today, thanks to the Internet, there is an alternative: the virtual trade show visit. Although it is not the same as being there, a virtual visit can be a valuable substitute.

What Is a Virtual Visit?
Many conferences today create a Web site to promote their shows. Attendees can go to these sites to register, choose a hotel, and even learn about the hosting city. These Web portals also provide those unable to attend with a way to virtually visit these meetings. This visit can include reviewing abstracts of papers, researching exhibitors’ listings, and following various links for further news and information. By exploring the show’s official Web site, you can conduct a virtual trade show tour.

Why Do It?
The objectives of a virtual tour are essentially the same as for an actual visit to a meeting. The basic goal is to learn about new techniques, new products, and new companies. And, you can review papers and news highlights to see the major industry trends and the advances in different fields of chemistry.

The Approach
I would like to illustrate the concept and effectiveness of a virtual tour by browsing two online conference sites: the upcoming 222nd ACS Fall National Meeting (www.acs.org/meetings/chicago2001/) and last March’s Pittcon 2001 (go to www. pittcon.org and find the link to Pittcon 2001 at the bottom of the page). Both are extensive sites with abundant and useful information. The first time you log on to these sites, you feel as overwhelmed as when you enter a conference hall and try to find your way around.

Where to begin? The best approach to organizing your virtual tour is to follow the same strategy you would use at a live event. Although everyone has a certain procedure for gathering information at a show, many conferees first decide which presentations to attend each day and then allocate the rest of their time to visit a certain number of exhibitors. Following a similar plan for your virtual visit will focus your efforts and divide your time into manageable chunks.

Taking the Tour
The first step is to look at the papers and posters that are being presented. Both the ACS and PittCon sites allow you to search for presentations in several ways. You can search by keyword, symposium, author, or day. Searching for specific topics has the advantage of taking you right to the relevant information. But simply browsing through a day’s talks is useful for two reasons. First, most chemists are interested both in techniques (e.g., gas chromatography) and in applications specific to their industries (e.g., food analysis). The ideal presentation is one that covers the use of a technique in an industry, yet we are also trying to increase our knowledge of the technology and discover other information relevant to our work. A second reason for scanning through the posters and papers is simple scientific curiosity—what is new in the world of chemistry?

On the ACS site, you can use the personal scheduler to look at papers by division and by day. The scheduler makes browsing through sessions as simple as if you were attending and planning your way through the sessions. When you look at individual sessions, many of the paper titles will be hyperlinked to the abstract, another Web page, or a downloadable file (generally Adobe Portable Document Format [PDF]). PDF files take a little longer to read online because you must first download the file and then open it in a separate viewing program. To survey a large number of papers, a better option is to save the files to your hard drive for viewing offline at your convenience. An important point to note is the authors’ contact information. If the abstract is from a vendor, you might be able to find more details by linking through the virtual exhibition booth to the company’s Web site.

After surveying the day’s presentations, it is time to move to the exhibition part of your tour. You again have search screen options for choosing which exhibitors to visit. These include company name, keyword, technique, and product category. A selection for books and periodicals on the PittCon 2001 site produced a list of several vendors. A mouse click on a vendor’s name takes you to the virtual booth, where you can read about the company and its products. Some booths are enhanced with extra product information, and most exhibitors have a link to their corporate Web site, where there is usually a section devoted to new products. Although the amount of virtual exhibitor information is limited, the process of generating the list, reading about each vendor, and looking at their offerings practically side-by-side is a profitable way to learn about the companies and their equipment.

Finally, there are other sections on a show’s Web site that can enrich your virtual tour. Particularly interesting are Web press releases and online conference publications. These are good information sources for industry news such as mergers, partnerships, corporate profiles, and market trends. The daily show journal can enhance your experience if it is posted online the same day it is printed for conference participants. Scanning the latest meeting news on your computer with morning coffee in hand doesn’t feel too different from reading the paper edition in your hotel room.

Is It Worthwhile?
We are no doubt letting our imagination run away in thinking that a virtual trade show visit is identical to attending a show. The real question is whether a virtual tour is a worthwhile endeavor if you can’t attend a conference (or even if you can). Obviously, you acquire new knowledge. But there are other benefits to the virtual trade show visit.

Schedule a tour at your convenience. You can attend a Web trade show anytime, day or night. You are not limited to choosing between two papers given at the same time or looking at booths only during show hours or even on specific dates. A virtual tour can be taken before, during, or after the actual conference.

Quickly locate presentations on particular topics. The ability to search abstracts by keyword allowed me to find within seconds all the talks on sensors. Reviewing titles would not necessarily have provided the same results, and reading every paper abstract definitely would have taken more time.

Digitally organize the facts you have found. With a few clicks of your mouse, abstracts are saved to appropriately named directories on your computer for future reference. Compare this to copying pages from the conference abstracts and filing them in folders.

Immediately obtain product information. Thanks to the hyperlinking aspects of the Web, if you find something interesting in an exhibitor’s online booth you can often link to the Web site to download a brochure or find more data. This capability is an advantage over live shows, where literature is rarely handed out on the floor.

Discover small companies. Screening for vendors by technique allows you to find small companies that might otherwise be overlooked on the exhibition floor, including those peripherally involved in your area of interest. Walking past a booth, you can easily overlook a new, unknown company selling chromatography software. A Web search will list them right next to the major manufacturers.

Plan your actual visit. If you are attending a conference, browsing the official Web site is helpful for orienting yourself before going and reviewing what you learned after you return.

These are the positives to a virtual conference tour. Are there any negative points? One drawback is the extensive computer time needed for an online visit. Conference sites contain an enormous amount of information. It can be difficult to determine the optimum steps to quickly find the pages with the information you need. Second, there is limited exhibitor information. The vendors’ Web pages include only a description of the company, brief summaries of its products, and a link to its Web site. This trend may change in the future as enhanced booths continue to evolve. However, the biggest shortcoming of a virtual tour is that certain things can only be experienced by attending a show in person.

There is no interaction with colleagues or vendors. Some of the best information is exchanged in face-to-face discussions with fellow chemists and salespeople. There is still no virtual substitute for informal conversations.

Presentations are incomplete. Only abstracts are available, not the complete poster or paper. You do not get the benefit of listening to a speaker’s presentation, seeing all the data, and asking questions.

You cannot kick the instrument tires. Although you might see a photograph of a mass spectrometer and read its specifications, you cannot judge its sturdiness over the Internet.

A virtual tour does not replace attending a trade show. However, it can provide you with a great deal of knowledge and perhaps even a sense of the show—what’s new in instrumentation, what analytical issues are receiving the most attention, what’s the next big technique. As technology advances, the virtual experience may get closer to reality, with Webcasts of lectures and vendors performing online demonstrations from their booths. The ultimate stage will be reached when tchotchkes (giveaways) can be downloaded.

Keith S. Kleman is a marketing consultant and freelance writer living in Holmes, NY. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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