Estonia introduces the travel-free travel fair

Tallinn - Estonia has already given the world the internet telephone service Skype and recently opened a NATO cyberdefence academy in its capital, Tallinn.

Now the Baltic nation, which is so in love with all things online that it sometimes brands itself "e-stonia," has come up with another internet first - a virtual travel fair.

The inaugural online travel fair, entitled "Travel Expo," runs October 27 through November 5. It is the idea of Estonian company Online Expo, run by young entrepreneurs Anna Lepp and Sergei Semjonov.

"We visited a traditional exhibition in Russia about a year ago," Lepp told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "When we were driving back to Estonia afterwards, we saw we had a huge amount of printed material to read, but we still had to go to the internet to get additional information. We asked ourselves 'Why can't we do the whole exhibition online?'"

They reasoned it should be possible to preserve the existing traditions and rules of organizing exhibitions and fairs, while making them more convenient, faster and more effective for exhibitors and visitors alike.

It's just as easy to talk to exhibitors online, Lepp believes. Nor has the company she and Semjonov formed to go online scrimped on marketing, spending 1.2 million Estonian kroons (96,000 dollars) on advertising, equivalent to the expenses of a regular travel fair.

Visitors to the event, at www. onlineexpo. com, can select their preferred language when they "arrive" and then interact with more than 100 exhibitors from Finland and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, without needing to queue, trudge from hall to hall or even leave the comfort of their favourite armchair.

Questions can be asked and brochures can be downloaded in real time. There will even be the same sorts of auctions, lotteries and other promotions one might encounter at a traditional trade fair, though opinions are likely to be mixed on the lack of leggy blondes handing out promotional materials.

The organisers believe they can attract 25,000 virtual visitors per day during Travel Expo's 10-day run. In order to prove how effective the format is, they say they will publish detailed visitor statistics after the event.

Though Travel Expo is the first exhibition of its kind, Lepp and Semjonov are already working on an even bigger virtual trade fair for 2009.

"Next year in March we will have a building and interior exhibition which will include Russia, the United States, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus," Lepp said. (dpa)

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