As the association trade show market grows and evolves, new ideas and trends that impact the planning and use of the all-important show floor — the cash cow of every event — are becoming more influential in the process.
And virtually all of them are related to improving the exhibitor experience and the return on investment exhibitors and sponsors earn from their participation in shows.
Somewhat ironically perhaps, one of the most apparent current trends is a new perspective on the trade show floor itself. After decades of a tried-and-true but increasingly predictable and tired layout, fresh new ideas are emerging.
“Something fun that I’m seeing now — and not too many associations are doing it yet — are floor plans that are not the traditional rectangles or squares,” says Tom Corcoran, president of Chicago-based exhibition planning and management company Corcoran Expositions. “For years and years, trade shows have been defined by the basic design of the convention centers. But now I see that changing.”
“Trade shows want more attendee excitement and interaction by being more creative with floor plans and not using the ‘same old look’ that has been around forever.”
— Tom Corcoran
For example, Corcoran says, his company is now working on a show that changed their look so the trade show floor sets up something similar to a baseball field that spreads the attendee and draws out to drive traffic to all parts of the exhibit hall. “And we’re saying, ‘OK, over here at first base we have a stage with TED-type talks. Behind second base is a fully functioning hospital emergency room sponsored by exhibitors. And on third base, we have all of the state associations and trade journals. It is a diamond shape with some vertical aisles and that changes the whole dynamic for the better.”
In addition, Corcoran recently has seen diagonal aisles that make traffic flow more interesting than the traditional perpendicular aisles. “In other shows, instead of all 10-foot aisles, we will drop in a center aisle that is a 20-foot wide aisle with park benches and trees that creates more opportunities for more on-the-floor attendee networking,” he says. “In other words, trade shows want more attendee excitement and interaction by being more creative with floor plans and not using the ‘same old look’ that has been around forever.
“The same can be said for the use of different colors in directional carpet to identify various special event areas. It is all about doing all you can to have your trade show stand out. In one show we organized for surgeons, we actually had a stage in a corner of the exhibit hall that showed a remote video of actual surgery going on, which turned out to be a really good draw that brought more doctors to the exhibit floor.”
Corcoran continues, “The basic idea is to create something different, a new dynamic. That makes the show more interesting and brings the wow factor to the show floor. That’s really what it’s about.”
Sam Lippman, president of Arlington, Virginia-based Lippman Connects, which consults with and holds conferences for executives in the convention and exhibition industry, agrees that new visions for the trade show floor are a genuine trend — and represent innovation.
“Floor plans are now being more developed for the convenience of attendees and not just for logistics,” Lippman says. “The good news is that the general services contractors for major shows is now becoming much more of a marketing partner to show organizers, whereas in the past, the general services contractor would fight anything that (interfered with) their logistical productivity. Now they recognize that the most important thing is to increase the productivity of the exhibitors and attendees. So they’re developing floor plans that have things like solution centers. And that kind of thinking leads to floor plans that deliver better results for both exhibitors and attendees.”
Lippman also is seeing more floor plans that highlight new exhibitors that have something novel and innovative to offer. Historically, new exhibitors played second fiddle to those that had been in the show every year and thereby earned premium positions. “But why do attendees come to shows?” Lippman says. “They come to see what’s new. So now you see more and more organizers putting new companies, especially those with something exciting to show, at the front of the floor rather than the back.”
Yet another interesting trend related, indirectly, to the show floor, Corcoran says, is the increasing rental and use of meeting rooms on the exhibit floor adjacent to the show floor for more private presentations or meetings. “It’s an extension of the old hospitality suite idea,” he says. “But now it’s happening just off the exhibit floor. This trend first caught on in the medical show market. It’s just a new way to get quick access to people in a quiet surrounding away from the booth. Some companies are performing market research or meeting one-on-one with their key customers. But overall, the use of private meeting rooms is a quiet trend that has begun to happen at more shows now.”
Another emerging trend Corcoran finds particularly interesting — and one that provides clear benefits for both attendees and the association hosting the show — is the increasing use of career centers, hosted by human resources professionals from companies actively recruiting new employees on the show floor.
“As an organizer, you are always looking for new areas that draw traffic to various parts of an exhibit hall. We have learned that hosting a Career Center area in the back of an exhibit hall works for everyone,” Corcoran says. And unlike when working with companies that compete so hard for the attendees’ attention, you don’t have to market career center booths a year in advance. These sales typically begin to happen closer to show time.”
And the benefits of such a simple innovation are obvious. For attendees, it offers the potential for career advancement. And for show organizers, it represents a new and unique revenue stream that can often add up to incremental profits from the show.
And a career center does not involve only selling booth real estate, where the exhibitor’s vendor furnishes the space. “With a career center, you often find the HR folks looking for more of a turnkey solution, as a typical Career Center booth will include a rug, a draped table and an ID sign.”
While fresh and innovative thinking about floor plans is a key trend, it pales by comparison to the trend toward the use of ever-improving technology to manage and analyze activity on the show floor and demonstrate the return on investment exhibitors are getting for their major investments in major trade shows.
Beacon technology, now being developed and offered by a growing list of vendors, is a next generation technology that improves upon the activity tracking and analysis capabilities offered by earlier RFID technology.
In particular, the use of wearable beacon technology placed in attendee badges to track attendee activity on the trade show floor is now a major trend — and one that will continue to grow because it is an innovative and accurate way to demonstrate the results exhibitors get for their substantial investments.
“For show managers, there are also some very good ways to use beacon technology,” Corcoran says. “For example, you can use it to better understand what are the low traffic areas at your show and figure out what didn’t work. And that allows you to make improvements in your show. The same can be said for gaining an
understanding of where you had your strongest traffic patterns too. We especially find beacon technology useful for the events that return to the same venue —it helps us to improve traffic patterns throughout a trade show.”
Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president of meetings and expositions at the Washington, DC-based ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership, not only concurs that the use of technology on the show floor is a major trend. She says it is the single most significant trend she observes at the moment.
Exhibitors, Ledoux says, are now using technology — and particularly beacon technology — for two key functions: to enhance the attendee experience and to collect data about the success of the show as a business investment.
And at the same time that onsite data capture by show managers and exhibitors is a major trend, it’s also clear that beacon technology, based simply on its superiority, is eclipsing RFID as a tool. One reason: Beacons tend to be more accurate and more broadly functional than RFID.
“We’re using beacons now,” Ledoux says. “We work with a beacon company that is a pioneer in the field. For example, they’re developing things like wearable beacons.”
ASAE used beacon technology for the first time at its technology show in 2014. Last year, it used it for all of its major shows.
And the data is available in the cloud. “So I can pull it up wherever I am, even if I’m on a plane,” Ledoux says. “That’s another thing that’s great about it.”
Likewise, exhibitors have their own dashboards that allow them to track and analyze the data related to the show floor in general and their exhibits in particular.
“They can also tell how many people walked past their booth and did not come in,” Ledoux says. “They can also measure how long visitors spent in their booth. And today, it can even be used to differentiate a hot prospect from a cold prospect based on prior behavior at the show, such as what other booths they have already visited or what sessions they attended.”
And every conceivable type of data and function can be analyzed and reacted to in real time. For example, Ledoux says, one widget vendor can compare its results to another widget exhibitor and analyze why it did better or worse for the day or the show versus its direct competitor.
Ledoux says the technology is revolutionizing the trade show floor and the analysis that can be accomplished. “For example, when we used beacon technology for the first time at our e-technology show in 2014, we saw on the first day that there wasn’t a lot of traffic on one side of the floor,” Ledoux says. “So we moved our ice cream break and some other things over there the next day to drive more traffic so exhibitors would see the traffic and could engage with attendees. The ability to do that kind of thing is one of the obvious benefits of beacon technology for show managers.”
It also can be used, she adds, to tell if a meeting room is too crowded or whether a particular session has not attracted much of an audience. “You can also see whether people are leaving a session while it’s underway or whether they’re leaving the hall during exhibit hours,” Ledoux says. “And those kinds of capabilities allow you to determine what is working and what is not working.”
Another growing trend is the “hosted buyer” format — meaning that the travel expenses of attendees are paid in return for a commitment to a certain number of appointments with sellers. But that is beginning to change, with new ideas coming to the fore.
“The use of preset face-to-face appointments is the biggest trend in our industry at the moment,” Corcoran says. “More and more shows are trying it now, and those buyer appointments are very valuable. Exhibitors are willing to pay a premium to be able to guarantee one-on-one meetings with key buyers.”
Based on its obvious benefits, will the format ever become universal? “I don’t think it will become universal,” Corcoran says. “But it’s a hot trend right now.”
Now, there is a new trend toward more innovative iterations of an appointment format.
The reason? “Attendees are more and more interested in having appointments with people who can help them solve their problems and do their jobs better,” Ledoux says. “And exhibitors want to talk to people who can help solve problems. So the format is a natural outgrowth of that. And new ideas like appointment matching formats just cater to that.”
However, Ledoux cautions, the traditional hosted buyer format has just as many critics as fans, if not more.
“If you talk to attendees about the hosted buyer format and the number of appointments required of them, you find that a lot of them — in focus groups and interviews — are steering away from hosted buyer shows because you are required to have so many appointments,” Ledoux says. “They don’t mind appointments. But they want them in their terms and not the terms set by the show manager or exhibitors.”
At the same time, however, ASAE has developed what Ledoux characterizes as an entirely new format that will be announced April 28 at ASAE’s 40th annual Springtime Expo in Washington, DC.
“We’re getting ready to launch a new meeting and a new model for the industry,” Ledoux said at press time. “It brings association professionals and exhibitors together in an entirely new format. But that’s all I can say about it at this point.”
A hint: The concept is based on what she calls “consultative sales.”
“For example,” she says, “if you’re a meeting planner, what good does it do to have a hotel tell you, ‘We have this many rooms and this much meeting space.’ Who cares? You can look that up online. The issues that should be talked about are things like what the planner is looking for in a destination or what his or her challenges are with airlift — in other words, substantive issues that need problem-solving. And that means moving from transactional sales to consultative sales. And that’s what our new model addresses. It’s a new format that leads to problem-solving for association professionals in a collaborative format that can lead to a sale.”
Lippman says smart exhibitors are becoming more demanding in their expectations of the ROI they will get from a show, which is good for the industry because it will force associations to be more attentive to exhibitor business goals. “And that will mean,” Lippman says, “that show managers do a better job with their shows.”
And that leads to more demand for hosted buyer formats and others designed to facilitate exhibitor-buyer appointments. “And the reason for that,” Lippman says, “is that the more demanding exhibitors are now asking show managers, ‘ Who will I be seeing at your show?’ And that means we’re seeing new things like new ideas and new technologies like appointment-setting apps.”
In the end, Lippman says, the reason association trade shows exist is to do business, both via educational content and expositions on the show floor. But it is the latter that determines the financial success of a show. And for that reason, more exhibitors are exercising more influence over the process.
“Educated and demanding companies that are investing in expositions are becoming much more aware of ways to stand out from the crowd,” Lippman says. “They’re negotiating much more for access to their particular targeted audience. And because of that, they are not just selecting a space on a floor plan and sending in their deposit.”
Lippman adds, “The demanding exhibitors are really giving smart show organizers the opportunity to have a collaborative experience and relationship. And that means that understanding what the exhibitors goals are, what their expectations are, will really shape how the show organizer puts together a package that includes things like exhibit space and sponsorship opportunities that will hopefully achieve the company’s particular objectives at the show. And I’m particular when I say ‘certain exhibiting companies,’ because there are still a majority of companies that are not really as aware of those issues or are not sophisticated enough to ask the right questions in advance to increase their chances of getting the results they want.”
Surprisingly, Lippman says that in his observation only a minority of exhibitors that participate in trade shows “take full advantage of the opportunities they could have or do not fully analyze the results they get from their trade shows.”
By the same token, Lippman says, too few show organizers grasp what is at stake and act accordingly.
“In all of the large show roundtables and exhibit sales roundtables that I do during the year, there’s only one show — the SEMA Show done by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association — that on their exhibit space application asks the question, ‘What is your objective for the show?’ ”
That simple fact, he says, illustrates the shortcomings of most shows when it comes to making sure exhibitors get the ROI they are seeking. “And how can a show organizer help an exhibitor meet their objective if they don’t even know what the objective is?”
In the future, he implies, the increasing power of exhibitors to drive results from their expensive participation in shows will force show managers to do a better job of understanding their business goal from the start of the process.
And that will become the most important trend of all. AC&F