With a slew of exhibitors doing their best to attract attendees to their respective booths, event organizers need to find ways to make the show floor experience appealing at the very least and dazzlingly memorable at best. Ideally, buyers will not feel like they are merely trying to efficiently navigate a dizzying array of exhibits; rather, they will feel like they are in a place that is an extension of their everyday lives, reflecting their interests and lifestyles. Elements that accomplish that goal will support the efforts of individual exhibitors, as these engaged, comfortable attendees will tend to stay longer on the floor and explore more of it.
David Gauthreaux, executive vice president of global sales, corporate events with FreemanXP in Seattle, notes that the company’s trade show clients have been increasingly focused on “experience design” in recent years. And the design is driven by the nature of modern life. Gauthreaux cites data suggesting that by 2050, “over 85 percent of the developed world population will live in urban environments,” and these “me-centric” milieus are replete with opportunities for people to get the social connections and content they want, at the time they desire. “You want to be able to go and sit in a space and connect with people, and connect with content either passively or actively. But you want to do it at your leisure,” he explains. Thus the motivation to include social hubs on the show floor, personalized content delivered to attendees’ smartphones by “beacons,” fluid content provide by digital signage and other tools of engagement.
And with the need to be constantly connected, “even something as rudimentary as power outlets to charge our devices has influenced the show floor, either in the form of furniture with plugs, different types of charging stations and then cordless charging technology,” Gauthreaux explains.
The engaging elements of a show floor need not be technological, of course. Peter MacGillivray, vice president of communications and events with SEMA – Specialty Equipment Market Association, cites a “low-tech” approach to wayfinding that has been very well received in recent years by attendees of the automotive specialty products trade show, taking place in November at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
“We found ourselves compromising the visceral feel of our industry by leaning too heavily on standard wayfinding. We saw an opportunity with the signs to design them in such a way that really hits this emotional chord with the industry, so attendees get this feeling that their trade association knows, values and understands them,” says MacGillivray. SEMA commissioned an artist who does popular work in the automotive industry. “We’re seeing a really interesting emotional response and energy that we hadn’t seen before,” MacGillivray observes. “We had people wanting to buy our show signage because they’re works of art.” The artist also designed the entrance unit for the hall. “Every show needs to do an entrance unit describing what’s inside, but if you can make your entrance unit both informational and visually interesting, it has an impact on the attendees and people talk about the piece. It really does tie back to this obligation that we have as show producers to amplify the energy that the exhibitors bring.”
Most important, exhibitors bring new and innovative products to the show, and organizers can amplify their efforts to showcase these products with a well-designed and branded theater on the floor. For instance, the National Confectioners Association’s (NCA) Sweets & Snacks Expo, held at Chicago’s McCormick Place for the last 18 years, features the Sweet Insights Theater on the show floor, and “it’s been standing room only the last two years,” says Jenn Ellek, senior director, trade marketing and communications with the NCA. “We’ve been very deliberate about bringing in new products; it’s a great place for candy and snack manufacturers to launch their products. So a lot of buyers want to be there to see what’s new, the innovations that are going to keep their customers coming back, and that’s what we offer.”
“When we’re putting on our trade event there’s a balance between getting business done and having fun doing it, because of the (product) categories we represent.” — Jenn Ellek
The Sweet Insights Theater is located toward the back of the hall to encourage traffic flow to that area, and is just one example of how engaging venues on the floor can be created to optimize that flow.
The SEMA Show occupies the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, utilizing just over 1 million sf. “We had a growing obligation to make sure that the traffic was going to all corners of the show,” says MacGillivray. “So we try to create hotspots that people would gravitate to.” One of those hotspots is the drifting demo (drifting is an “extreme” motorsport where the driver oversteers to cause loss of traction in the tires). Not only do the demos serve as draws to less-frequented areas of the show, but they also “create a new way for our industry participants to get a little bit of the media spotlight and attendee interest,” he explains. “They have wildly interesting and innovative products that can make vehicles do really cool things, but that’s kind of hard for an exhibitor to fully demonstrate on the floor of a trade show. So if we’ve got a driving demonstration area, it’s a way for them to bring their products and innovations to life.”
Attendees of the Remodeling Show | DeckExpo | JLC LIVE, whose 25th Anniversary installment will be held at Chicago’s Navy Pier in October, can browse through innovative outdoor living products with complimentary drinks from a beer garden on the show floor. “It’s been a pretty good way to keep people on the floor,” remarks Rana Schultz, senior operations manager, Informa Exhibitions U.S., Construction and Real Estate.
Booth visitation is also promoted through a “Hall Crawl,” where attendees go to participating exhibitors to collect a stamp or to download the show app. The exhibitor then gives them a code so they can enter into a drawing to win $500. Apart from the beer garden, the floor boasts about nine clinics and four exhibitor demonstrations, held hourly. “We try not to have them all at the same time, and scatter them throughout so our sponsors can be around the actual clinic, too,” Schultz explains. In addition, the show features award presentations right on the floor, including the Trade Person of the Year and the Best Booth Awards. “We try to keep everyone on the floor as busy as possible,” she says.
In the spirit of creating the “urban environment” on the show floor that Gauthreaux describes, organizers can feature F&B outlets such as the Remodeling Show’s beer garden. The idea is to answer to as many of attendees’ everyday needs as possible. Says Ellek, “We are owned by an association and run by a committee. It’s very important for them to keep people on the show floor. We have food options right on the floor, including a nice lounge, so nobody has to go off the floor to eat.”
The average amount of time attendees spend at the show is among the metrics that can indicate how engaging the experience is. “We’re always above average for the number of hours our average attendee spends at the show: 2.1–2.4 days and 17–18 hours,” notes Jim Wulfekuhle, vice president of sales and marketing for the International Woodworking Fair (IWF), which brought more than 23,000 attendees and 960 exhibitors to the Georgia World Congress Center last year. If the average amount of time increases following the addition of a new component to the floor, such as a clinic, product theater or attraction, it can be inferred that the new feature contributed to the increase, and was therefore successful. Post-event delegate surveys, of course, also can gauge the level of interest in such features.
The IWF’s show floor also benefits from survey questions on business interests and as a result has been including more pavilions geared toward specific aspects of the woodworking industry, such as cabinets/closets (new in 2016) and wood flooring. “We’re getting more targeted, and we can grow within the segments that we see as growth patterns for our show based upon our surveys,” Wulfekuhle explains.
Another initiative is to support networking among exhibitors. “We know our exhibitors do a lot of buying from other exhibitors, but the next step is the ‘matchmaking’ between, for example, the cabinetry guy that’s attending the show and the countertop fabricator that’s attending, who may want to do business with each other. We’re looking to do that with some kiosks where they can get information (on potential business partners in attendance) and two new pavilions,” he says. And while it’s important to promote networking on the show floor among both exhibitors and attendees, it should be recognized that a busy floor may not be the best environment for focused interaction. Accordingly, “we also arrange ‘meetups’ at the building’s bars and restaurants by sending out email blasts: Meet here for $3 drinks or appetizers, for example,” Wulfekuhle says. “We want to keep them continually communicating with each other. Some of the best information is gathered in a more one-to-one environment. (On the floor) you have machines running, people moving around, cell phones buzzing, etc.” The October 2015 Remodeling Show | DeckExpo | JLC LIVE at Navy Pier in Chicago cleverly emphasizes the networking value proposition with the slogan “Peer to Pier.”
Creating a show floor that adds value for attendees and exhibitors requires calculated investments, and not every host organization will find it worthwhile to make their floor reflect the latest trends. For example, “some shows are still considering social media walls, and other clients have already moved beyond that,” observes Gauthreaux, who has been in the trade show business for 25 years and has seen many such trends arise. “We all know there are a basic few things that drive budget: You’ve got to get the attendance, and there has to be an engagement level that ultimately drives sales or some sort of interaction with the products. And so if that’s happening at scale in a certain vertical, then those clients may not move as readily (to invest in the latest show floor features) as those who are well aware that unless they start responding to millennials and the future decision-makers, then the future of their business is at risk.”
For a show’s success to be sustainable, Gauthreaux suggests host organizations “have to think ahead to what is the demographic of the attendee 10 years from now,” and the kind of floor experience those buyers will find engaging. Yet some features, he notes, “are no longer negotiable. For example, you have to have robust wireless infrastructure at your event because everyone, almost without exception, wants content delivered wirelessly. And that was negotiable some years ago. You also have to have the ability to respond to the attendee’s need to be able to charge their device.”
A show floor that reflects the Information Age, with numerous opportunities for attendees to engage with content, might raise the concern among organizers that buyers will become distracted from the booths. But in Gauthreaux’s experience, there is no distraction effect “if the content is managed properly, and if you’re smart about it you can ensure that the content the attendee has access to advances your cause.” That is, kiosks, beacons, digital displays, show apps can all serve, in part, to further booth visitation with information and messaging; even a simple announcement that there will be a clinic at a certain time on the floor can lead attendees to peruse booths in that area which they otherwise would not have visited.
Exhibitors themselves are seeing the value of robust digital content at their own booths. “They’re understanding that they need to have relevant content and that the content needs to be user-driven. A table with brochures, which I’ve seen for many years in my career and it still happens every day of the week, is going to be more static and left to chance.” And given our highly connected lifestyles, there should be little concern that attendees will feel overloaded with digital communications from both the show organizers and the exhibitors. “There was a time when it was unimaginable that I would manage 300–500 e-mails a day, and that I could at any moment stop what I’m doing, look at my device and learn about anything I want,” Gauthreaux points out. Now these abilities are commonplace and unchallenging for most people.
In general, exhibitors will thrive simply by being part of a show floor with engaging elements, whether high tech, social, educational and so on. And that takes some of the pressure off exhibitors to invest in lavish booths to draw buyers onto the floor. “Our constituents are for the most part small, privately held domestic manufacturers,” says MacGillivray. “They don’t have the means to do these huge, multimillion-dollar displays that you see at other big shows. So we’ve invested in strategies to amplify and create our own sizzle that all the exhibitors can benefit from. We don’t want to assume that everyone is going to come to our show year in and year out, and we have bought into the importance of the show being an experience in addition to the business relationships.”
“We’ve invested in strategies to amplify and create our own sizzle that all the exhibitors can benefit from. …We have bought into the importance of the show being an experience in addition to the business relationships.” — Peter MacGillivray
Attending a large trade show can indeed be a marathon for buyers, “so if we can make it an emotional one, hopefully hitting on all the good emotions, it’s all the more valuable and brings buyers back year after year.”
Ellek sees a similar value in augmenting the floor with positive emotional elements, a practice that can be seen at any successful retail store (e.g., energetic background music). “When we’re putting on our trade event there’s a balance between getting business done and having fun doing it, because of the (product) categories we represent.” Professionals in the confectionary industry are naturally given to lighthearted moments, and on the Sweets & Snacks Expo’s exhibit hall concourse there are 12-foot high letters that second-guess their reaction to the show: “WOW!” AC&F