Creating an ExperienceSeptember 19, 2023

The Changing Landscape of Event Design By
September 19, 2023

Creating an Experience

The Changing Landscape of Event Design
Inviting signage welcomed attendees at the Inspired Home Show this spring at McCormick Place in Chicago. Photo by Adam Alexander / Courtesy of David Sherman

Inviting signage welcomed attendees at the Inspired Home Show this spring at McCormick Place in Chicago. Photo by Adam Alexander / Courtesy of David Sherman

The changing needs and priorities of event exhibitors and attendees in today’s post-pandemic world is driving a change in the basic strategies of event design, from the conceptual stage to execution.

“People are now much more critical about the events they spend their time on, which means that if you don’t think about event design, the likelihood of those events surviving is pretty mediocre,” Ruud Janssen, co-founder and managing partner of the Event Design Collective, GmbH, an event design consulting and training firm in Switzerland, said.

The vision behind Janssen’s Event Design Collective (EDC) is to create a common language for designing events using a strategic management template – the Event Canvas, which is a visual chart with elements describing an event’s potential and how it benefits stakeholders.

According to Janssen, “Many associations and membership-based organizations are very conscious about rethinking how they design events to suit the needs of the respective stakeholders most effectively.”

Aside from the initial buy in from the association’s stakeholders, designers need to know an event’s target audience, which is getting younger. A report released earlier this year by event company Freeman, “Freeman Trends Report: Event Attendee Intent and Behavior Q1 2023,” found a drop in the average age of B2B event attendees — from 51 before the pandemic, to 45.

“The biggest thing is a decided shift in audience,” David Sherman, vice president, executive creative director for Freeman in Dallas, TX, said. “Event organizers are starting to get serious about overhauling their events to make them more attractive for the more demanding preferences of Gen Z and Millennials who are now well over half the attendees.”

Dennis Smith, vice president of business development at AAHOA (Asian American Hotel Owners Association) in Atlanta, GA, agreed that the generational shift in attendees is sparking a shift in event design strategy.

“Meeting and trade show professionals are experiencing a strong return to face-to-face after the pandemic as there has been a high degree of pent-up demand for shows,” Smith said. “However, there is a demand for change as many companies that have been participating for years are now looking at the ROI of participating and/or sponsoring events. This result is driving some of the change toward event design strategy.”

AAHOA produces the annual trade show AAHOACON, which draws some 8,000 attendees, in addition to 25 annual single-day regional events, charity golf tournaments and town halls.

Smith added that with a changing workforce landscape and a new generation entering the workforce, the traditional event design model will not survive, as the expectations related to the event experience are changing.

“A positive side of the pandemic is that we were able to test different models and measure the amount of true engagement, which by all accounts was quite low. More networking, more engagement and more experiential activities are all elements that every organizer must consider in designing their events.”

Some engagement strategies AAHOA uses in its floor plan revolve around ensuring attendees walk the entire route of the hall. “We have plenty of activations to keep engagement at a high level. We also stagger meals and drink station times to promote engagement during all our events,” Smith said. In addition, one key change introduced this year at AAHOACON in Los Angeles was a stage area for hoteliers to experience solutions to common challenges that AAHOA branded “The Garage.” Other added activations on the show floor included a massage and relaxation zone and gaming locations that were strategically placed around the show floor, according to Smith.

Michelle Koblenz, senior manager, events for the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) in Washington D.C., is also basing event design on the latest studies and surveys.

“When we survey our attendees, we’re learning that, more and more, attendees are looking for opportunities to connect with other people at the events. That’s why they want to be in person. Now that we’re back in our full force of working towards live events, we’ve taken a little bit more of a critical look at our past patterns for our events. We’ve given each event additional opportunities to have a networking focus, so less time in the classroom and more time talking to each other.”

NBAA’s annual show draws nearly 25,000 attendees, and the association also hosts smaller regional forums and a series of trade specific conferences, as well as a convention each year in Geneva, Switzerland.

Another strategy is creating innovative environments to facilitate conversation. “At our event last year in Atlanta, we had an oxygen bar during the break. There were four chairs in a row, so you could strike up a conversation with the person next to you while enjoying some fresh air.”

Koblenz said NBAA also added networking opportunities, offering food and beverage breaks on the show floor, timed events to draw crowds to exhibit booths, such as tarot card readers, and educational content in theaters on the show floor. “We have our Keynote Theater, which is a 2,000-seat theater, on the show floor facing the exhibits.”

Janssen looks at networking and engagement as the result of good event design. “If things are well designed, if they connect to the needs of the respective stakeholders, if they enable you to go into the direction of changing of the behaviors and they’re done in the ways that people are motivated, I think that’s what that’s what engagement looks like. Engagement is never a purpose; it’s an outcome. You just need to make sure you address what’s needed and cut away all the stuff that’s not needed. It’s the art of weeding it out and keeping the essence. We’re not looking for more complexity. We’re looking for more simplicity.”

Immersive Design

Event designers are leveraging data to customize immersive event experiences that resonate with their attendees. “We’ve seen a number of clients interested in re-organizing their event around topic and content-focused experiential zones,” Sherman said. “Often these experiential zones represent the organizational pillars for the industry the show represents.  Therefore, you get a neighborhood effect whereby communities form around the experiential zones and provide a more focused, more efficient, more valuable experience for the attendee.”

Sherman also noted that Freeman is trying to offer more opportunities for attendees to create a personalized or curated agenda or experience based on their objectives, interests or backgrounds. Ideally, this starts pre-event and integrates into their planning. “One project gave the attendee an ‘ideal day’ based on desired outcomes, and then led them through the event floor with LED towers that featured QR codes that identified nearby content and exhibitors related to the desired outcome,” he said. “Hopefully, this type of guidance can be accomplished with AI in the near future.”

Sherman said Freeman is starting to use AI image generators to help visualize new concepts, or establish inspiration or mood boards for a project. Freeman has also partnered with companies like Zenus to introduce ethical AI technologies that capture sentiment and allow for AI-based behavior mapping that can measure KPIs to inform the design of future events.

Freeman is also seeing a desire to create intentional micro-communities within events based on common interests, segments of the industry or desired outcomes.

“Oftentimes, this is being accomplished by using a more ‘destination’ based event design,” Sherman said. “We are curating features, activities and engagement around topical areas of focus that draw together attendees with common needs and interests. There is always a desire to offer greater personalization and matchmaking to interests as well.”

At NBAA’s events, attendees are looking for more customized experiences.

“They definitely are more interested in a curated experience for the people who are coming who are qualifying,” Jessa Foor, senior director of marketing, NBAA, in Washington D.C., said. “For instance, if they have somebody come to the booth who they really feel is going to buy XYZ, then they will invite them to a truly curated intimate VIP experience that they’re having at the event. They’ve pivoted away from having these large parties where they invite basically everybody. Now, they might rent the penthouse of a hotel and have a bourbon experience where smaller groups of people are actually getting the chance to network at this small, curated experience.”

For the Toy Association’s annual Toy Fair show this year, a cornerstone feature was a new Visual Merchandising Initiative, which required exhibitors to make products visible in at least 20% of their aisle-facing booth space. The initiative came as a result of feedback from the retail community and media to create a more engaging show experience, according to Kimberly Carcone, Executive Vice President, Global Market Events, The Toy Association.

“When show attendees walked the aisles, they were met with fewer barriers for business and more opportunities to fully engage with the companies and products on display,” Carcone said. “By taking advantage of this opportunity, exhibiting companies were also able to put their top camera-ready priorities front and center for media, while still having the opportunity to create more private spaces to showcase 2024 product behind closed doors to more exclusive and trusted partners.”

Exhibit booths were evaluated based on creativity, effectiveness, presentation and overall structure. Five companies — based on booth size — were to be awarded in each of the four categories:

  • Connection Award: An exhibit space whose entire atmosphere is united in design with the core product(s)
  • Out-of-the-Box Award: A creative, imaginative exhibit space that is innovative and outside the limits of conventional thinking
  • Powerfully Playful Award: An exhibit space that conveys fun and liveliness to the attendee with interactive elements
  • Warm Welcome Award: A visually hospitable exhibit that invites the attendee in

Recognizing that play’s impact reaches well beyond the toy space, this year’s show incorporated new product zones highlighting the opportunities in toy-adjacent industries and trends, such as the World of Toys Pavilion in partnership with Spielwarenmesse eG, featuring brands and playthings from around the world.

Sustainability and Healthy Practices

With sustainability and the Net Zero Carbon Events initiative taking center stage in recent years, event designers are focusing on exhibitors using eco-friendly materials, reducing waste and considering the overall carbon footprint of an event.

“I think social justice and social change is important to people and more and more we’re incredibly focused on trying to make our events as sustainable as possible,” Koblenz said. “Part of what we’ve done is we have started carbon offset programs, we try and reduce single-use plastics and we are doing our best to reduce as much printing as possible.”

NBAA also uses more digital signage on-site and options like a video wall to showcase what is currently happening at events to draw attendees in.

“Looking to the future, I think that looking to the device in your hand, and making sure you can use that throughout the show is such an important feature,” Koblenz said. “We frequently do a lot with our QR codes around the building so that, if you scan something, you can learn more about what’s going on. For a VIP event we did a couple years ago, we had link tree QR codes on each table as the centerpiece so you scan the QR code and it brought you to a link tree where you could click through to see all the different resources and news articles about what was going on. The programming related to the programming that we were putting on in that room.”

On the health side, in designing an F&B menu, Koblenz said she is being asked to provide healthier options that fuel people. “How you serve your food has become more and more important to the attendee. When I go to events and when we’ve set up events, if we put two food and beverage options out, one is a standard display and one is something interactive, like you get a crudité cup where attendees choose all their dressings. “People like those types of opportunities so they are fun for people who are outgoing, and sometimes, it helps people who are a little bit shyer feel more comfortable because we’re giving them something to do with their hands, or something to do because they’re on the show floor.”

Casual dinners are also more popular for NBAA’s membership rather than big gala events, Koblenz noted.

“They don’t want to go and listen to speeches for an extended period of time and sit at a table with the same 10 people. They want to have the opportunity to talk to 20 different people at our reception event,” she explained.

Sherman said that for Freeman, Product Theaters with food included and Lunch & Learns are increasingly attractive for both sponsors and attendees.

“In general, blending consumption and learning just makes for a more natural, comfortable, social experience that people are more likely to participate in and linger around,” Sherman said.

Next Generation

Training for the next generation of event designers is a priority for the EDC. Janssen noted about 700 people have gone through the EDC’s level three cohort training to become certified event designers. The Event Canvas is also being taught in universities and EDC is building design labs around the world, from Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands to Purdue University.

“Also, we’ve got this massive repository of event designs,” Janssen said, based on all the collaborative training sessions, or cohorts, EDC has hosted worldwide. “It’s like this IKEA store of event designs that’s building up in the background. And people can just go shopping and then go look at open rooms where you can look at each other’s designs.”

He also noted the event designs are looking toward the future.

“We’re designing very often for far out,” he said. “What does this look like in 2029? How does the evolution work in the next three, four years? What iterations of change do we have to be able to get to that future state?” | AC&F |

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