In the world of association trade shows, it’s all about getting people to engage with an organization’s products, services and brand. It’s the core philosophy behind using a trade show booth as a revenue generator and business development tool versus an expensive add-on that does little for an association’s bottom line. So what role does the future design of trade shows play for associations? A big one, say the experts — especially as interactivity and technological advancements make way for memorable trade show experiences.
According to David Solsbery, vice president of creative services at Hargrove, the creator of environments for events, experiential marketing activations, expositions and exhibits, trade show attendees are embracing disruption. They are looking for experiences that are personalized and out of the norm.
“Show managers are keenly aware that to drive up attendee satisfaction they need to fully understand the personae of the people attending then create authentic experiences that meet attendees’ expectations,” Solsbery says. “Attendees are sophisticated but are also willing to be targeted through marketing efforts as long as the experience is authentic and they are kept engaged. Short attention spans mean they want and need to be surprised with fresh ideas like activations and experiential engagements.”
ASAE, the membership organization of more than 30,000 association executives and industry partners, recently hosted their two-day Xperience Design Project (XDP), which drew 1,512 association professionals and industry partners to the event that featured a variety of innovative event engagement strategies and solutions. Hargrove was responsible for conceiving, fabricating and delivering the layout and design for all event spaces, decor, lighting, audio/video, run of show production and stage management, signage and setup. Hargrove imagined and built a holistic event environment that became an immersive experience for attendees.
As part of their role, Hargrove was tasked to find a solution that allows simultaneous presentations in one room. After much testing, trial and error, they came up with a group of technology solutions.
“First we decided on a center stage, but the question was, how do you have one moderator then five presenters?” Solsbery says. Their solution was a circular LED screen within a screen. The top screen was static for content and the center screen rose up and down so each presenter had a backdrop. The Hargrove team’s second challenge was sound. A standard audio system would not work, so the team decided to embrace a closed audio earbud system that ran on FM frequency. As attendees moved from session to session, they simply changed the channel.
“Attendees are embracing new ways of learning,” Solsbery says. Ignite-style talks, rapid sessions, work groups and exhibit hall pop-up presentations are some current trends that trade shows are utilizing to keep attendees involved and engaged.
“Attendees are embracing fresh learning environments like large, team-oriented learning experiences or consecutive sessions in one room with multiple speakers and learning groups.”
— David Solsbery
Lorelei Harloe, meeting planner and principal at LKH Communication, LLC, works with the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), which offers extensive, free technical workshops as part of the annual NECA Show.
“For greater show value, attendees are embracing increasing educational spot-sessions on the show floor — mostly exhibitor-sponsored sessions, including presentation theaters, brief TED-type talks, fast-growing technology including virtual reality demonstrations, extensive free technical workshops, more interactive product display vehicles, local site visits to show-only events, and increased in-booth networking events,” Harloe says.
Technology continually increases opportunities to engage with an organization, including livestreaming sessions/panel discussions; effective multimedia exhibit elements; virtual reality demonstrations; more interactive show websites for posting news, videos and floor/visit planning; and social media show pages for real-time communication.
When it comes to trade show floor design, more and more associations are looking for the next “big thing” and one that leaves a lasting impression. Virtual reality fits that bill.
“Virtual reality is a great tool to keep your audience engaged,” Solsbery says. “It provides a unique learning environment for attendees. You can take them anywhere and with a good design you can teach them anything. For now it is a bit too expensive for large sessions and out of reach for many show managers. It takes a certain amount of creative and technical prowess to do it right.”
Hargrove recently created a smart-city scale model where attendees could don virtual reality goggles that transported them into the smart city where they learned all about new city innovations. “It was the most popular attraction in the show,” Solsbery says.
The majority of the booths today have a generic theme and design. Many associations employ standard, pre-fab booths using stock photography of smiling people and bland messaging listing the attributes of an organization. Nothing about these booths stands out or compels visitors to learn more. However, creating a theme that speaks to the target audience and differentiates the organization from all the others being promoted at the show increases the odds for more traffic.
Jennifer Hoff, CEM, president of Taffy Event Strategies, says that overall she is seeing continued emphasis on immersive and experiential marketing, Exhibitors and organizers are creating more digital experiences and integrating live components.
“Attendees are leveraging trade show mobile apps as the engagement opportunities in apps are enhanced,” Hoff says. In addition to basic navigation of the show floor and setting the schedule, apps are providing networking, polling, gamification, chatbots, audio tours and other ways for attendees to engage with an event.
“Attendees are appreciating the opportunity to curate their own experiences,” Hoff explains. “Technology has provided tools to enable a much deeper understanding of the attendees, as well as their needs and expectations with the events. Organizers will continue to leverage this data to engage attendees and enable them to better accomplish what they need to from their participation.”
Hoff stresses the increased presence of virtual reality and augmented reality at events. The technology enables exhibitors and organizers to create experiences for attendees that were never before possible.
“The potential impact to change how events operate and engage with attendees using this technology is yet to be seen,” Hoff says. “I’ve seen virtual reality used for education and product development — if you are an exhibitor at a tabletop or smaller event and you have a large product you want to showcase, VR provides a great platform to do this.”
If you are at a large event, virtual reality can help provide an environment where attendees can engage with a product or service at a whole new level. Associations can show things they may never be able to through a static display, and it’s intriguing to attendees.
“As with all technology that gets introduced in the events industry, it will continue to evolve,” Hoff says. “Virtual reality was limited in execution when it first came out but we are seeing more applications, and augmented reality and projection mapping are expanding the application possibilities for larger crowds.”
Creating a connection with the audience is paramount, and incorporating interactive elements within trade show design is key. Not surprising, interactivity within an exhibit booth is important to create a face-to-face connection and memorable experience for show attendees. To that end, exhibit booths now tend to be much more open and beckon the attendee into the space with LED displays, touchscreens, tablets and the like.
“Technology has transformed and enhanced the trade show experience in so many ways,” Hoff says. “From the marketing experience where attendees are being marketed to based on their roles and needs to engagement opportunities enabling attendees to create the experience they want at an event. With polling to select locations, speakers and educational sessions, technology has provided attendees with a much greater opportunity to enhance their experiences at events.”
Hoff also is seeing technology drive attendee engagement. In 2017, Taffy Event Strategies launched audio tours on the show app for Coverings, a tile and stone trade show.
“We wanted to provide an introduction to the show to new attendees as well as offer trends and technical information,” Hoff says. “We used to have several live tours and introductory presentations for first-timers and the audio tours enabled us to replace these. Attendees can get the information at their own pace and they appreciate that.”
Although incorporating tech interaction into your space can prove to be beneficial, it needs to have a defined purpose. For example, instead of focusing on the size of the monitors in a booth space, focus on what will be displayed on those touchscreens, and how it will create a meaningful interaction with show attendees.
Clay Lovelace, vice president of design and creative at GES, an event management company, says that today’s general sessions and theaters are much more immersive with the latest lighting, projection and sound capabilities. “Audience participation is big,” Lovelace says. “The speaker can now engage the audience with smart devices, smart accessories and feedback. In addition, digital content is very dynamic and a big departure from the days of static PowerPoint presentations.”
And as technological elements continue to play a role the audience experience, digital signage also is becoming commonplace with the convention facilities. “This allows for more robust messaging and keeps a visually cleaner environment by limiting signage,” Lovelace says. “It is also sustainable versus printed graphics.”
Data collection also is becoming easier through interactive touch points, which means an association now can develop better metrics and leverage the information for meaningful improvements.
“Smart devices are now more relevant than ever and by connecting attendees to the show and to other attendees, we are pushing and collecting information,” says Lovelace. “All of this combined, technology is changing the rules and outcome.”
This much we know: Trade show managers will continue to rethink the exhibit hall. It needs to be a destination. As Solsbery explains, this will help drive revenue and keep both exhibitors and attendees happy.
“Today many of the exhibit halls I see are a cacophony of exhibitors angling for attention,” Solsbery says. “There is no cohesive brand presence and no destination other than the exhibits. The exhibit hall should be branded and managed like an amusement park. An overarching show brand should be present. The show management should show exhibitors that they are invested in their success, not just leave them alone to fight for themselves.”
“Future floor planning and design will offer more grouped exhibits that coexist by technology product and service areas for more cohesive and logical flow,” Harloe says. “And as immediate surveys continue to increase for basically everything we buy or experience, I also see more immediate surveying and feedback opportunities to improve both the overall show and the individual booth experience.
“For the greatest value for exhibitors and attendees, the future show floor will improve space planning with more cohesive planning, regular events and raffles to build pre-show excitement and encourage traffic throughout the floor, increased educational, interactive and networking opportunities,” Harloe adds.
Anthony Baldini, senior account executive at Sterling Communications, says the trade show of the future could be replaced by virtual reality in ways that eclipse traditional video communications.
With the progress of VR and associated technologies including haptics, bio sensors, 3-D scanning and facial recognition technologies, a trade show can feasibly be held entirely in a digital realm.
“The cost savings and time-efficiency to be had from a digital setup makes this concept attractive enough to lure businesses of all sizes, and the busiest of business professionals,” Baldini says. “The reason a company would want to participate in a digital trade show is because traditional trade shows often carry high travel and materials overhead, and resources such as employee support and materials are an inexact science that aren’t easily scalable. These problems are easily solved in a digital environment, where one-time setup of common digital assets is the primary expense.”
Tactically, Baldini says that digital trade show exhibitors can simultaneously have a presentation mode always available when a virtual attendee “drops by.” Meanwhile, a queue of one-on-one attendee meetings — face-to-face video chatting — can run on the side.
“This queue list, which is voluntarily joined by interested attendees, gives exhibitors the flexibility to bring in just the right amount of remote support simply by adding another representative into the portal,” Baldini says. “This model eliminates booth reps standing around with nobody to talk to, while making sure the most valuable executives are meeting with the highest-quality prospects first. AI already exists to make this mega-scheduling task a possibility.”
Lovelace sees the trade show floors of the future having lots of open spaces for gathering and connecting, as well as boulevards that run through the halls to help drive traffic and create a more esthetic visual. “The trade shows of the future will emulate school campuses through foundation business locations, quads, administrative and dining opportunities,” Lovelace says. “Like city planners, we want to make each area on the show floor special and relevant to help drive a holistic experience and ensure each zone has value to the exhibitor and attendee.”
In addition to high-tech initiatives and well-designed layouts, trade show organizers will be using captured data in a myriad of ways. Hoff believes data capture on the show floor through beacons and evolving immersive technologies, to understand attendee and exhibitor behavior, will continue to evolve.
“VR and AR technologies will develop and offer new channels for content as well as impact how we will experience show floors in the future,” Hoff says. “The proliferation of technology, devices and apps will continue to transform the trade show landscape. We have evolved so much in the past five years from a digital and technological perspective, and I only see that continuing in the future.” AC&F