In a downturn, T&E budgets are among the first items to go and publishers are starting to see some serious softness in the events business they were counting on to pick up the slack from print. American Business Media says b-to-b trade shows are down 3.7 percent through the first three quarters of 2008, the first drop for b-to-b events in seven years.

Several publishers have experimented with digital events that can run across the Web and be archived for long-term access. Elsevier recently developed a digital, “face-to-face” hybrid for its Vaccine Congress event, which ran December 7 to 9 in Boston.

Using ON24’s virtual event platform, Elsevier allowed virtual viewers to see presentations and participate in real-time Q&As. Twelve hundred virtual attendees registered for the event, while 400 live attendees were on site (virtual attendees also registered for free). A virtual exhibition floor was also provided as a value-add to five of the live exhibitors.

“What do people go to a conference for?” said Elsevier commercial director Nigel Clear.  “Number one is to access unique content and number two is the opportunity to network. What can we do online? Access to content, that’s easy. Can we replicate the networking? Virtual attendees were able to network with other delegates and presenters as well. With the Q&A at the end, we were taking questions from Venezuela, Brazil, from all over, and that made them feel part of what’s happening.”

Elsevier will begin adding virtual elements to all of its shows going forward. “The way people consume information is changing and it’s no longer acceptable for people to be tied to publisher schedules, TV schedules, or even conference schedules,” Clear said. “The technology to do virtual events has been around but what has changed is the market has become more accepting of social networking opportunities.

“We serve 11 million researchers and professionals but only attract a small portion to our conferences,” he added. “Time and travel budgets are more precious. For every physical attendee we can get, there must be 10 or 20 others we can reach as well.”