The customer must come first

Stands should be all about the experience that exhibitors want to give potential customers, so their design must serve the corporate message and complement the venue too. By Ed Drayton

Making an impact at any event is not just about looking the part, it’s about conveying a convincing message, too. That’s not to say that looking good isn’t important. A stand with a couple of chairs and sullen staff is going to be as counterproductive as a massive, overly designed space that says nothing. Before you enter into your design process, it’s important to know what you want to achieve.

The most successful designs have come from in-depth and clearly thought-out briefs. After all, if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve then there’s little chance of your stand designers knowing. While design agencies will certainly be able to advise you on what will work, it’s down to you to know what effect you want your designs to have. Being at an event to generate leads, to build brand awareness or to launch a new product will all require markedly different approaches to stand design. Not least in the actual shape of your space.

Shape is important

“Stand shape is important at any show,” explains Jenny Campbell, marketing manager at human resources and payroll software supplier Snowdrop Systems. “Long thin ‘conveyor belt’ stands work well for us when we go to software shows that require us to do demonstrations. On the other hand, we use open, square stands for general exhibitions where we give away promotional gifts and concentrate more on branding. This allows people who aren’t specifically interested in our product to visit the stand and chat to our team.”

Successful stand design is about correctly interpreting how companies want to be seen and appeal to their customers. The most important thing at any show is the customer, and stand design should be based around the experience companies want to give them.

“It sounds simple, but all too often it’s forgotten that the main focus of an event should be the customer and not the product or service,” says Julian Pullan, joint managing director at global events company Jack Morton Worldwide. “Not only should you grab and keep their attention, but you should also look after them. The goal of a good stand should be to create a place that is the customer base – a place where they want to keep returning to. Hospitality can be a key to this.”

David Lett, director at design agency Smallbackroom, agrees/ “A bacon sandwich at 9.30am or a glass of champagne at 5pm can really attract people onto your stand. If your staff can separate the grazers from the prospects, then you’ve got the opportunity to make a really useful connection.”

Creating this sort of pull is less about design and more about adding value to your stand, and this can include anything from coffee bars, a VIP area or having some sort of gift, through to holding on-stand seminars. Spectacle and world firsts will also draw people in – people will always be interested in something different. Pullan expands: “Stands can also benefit from a fun or surprise element, for example using theatre to tell the story of a brand or using design to evoke the feel of an experience such as a race track.

“We achieved the latter within the design of the Vauxhall stand at Motor Show Live 2004. We produced a stylised banked track, which evoked a sense of racing thrills and excitement. An architectural structure, which acted as a launch platform for the new Astra, created a dramatic element as well. The show was a treat for the eyes. Cars seemed to hang in mid-air and spotlights shone down, highlighting each individual vehicle with absolute clarity.”

Downside to technology

Technology plays an integral part in most stand designs these days, and used well it can be a major attention grabber. High-resolution graphics, flat-screen monitors and images that reflect both the product and the event all work towards producing a stand-out, colourful and vivid quality finish. But there’s also a downside.

David Millican, head of communications at Xerox UK, explains: “Multimedia, if used properly, can be effective at drawing visitors to your stand and capturing their attention. But, if not used properly it can be a wasted investment. It is not enough to have a plasma screen running a video on your stand – people will simply walk past. You need to actively invite them to watch it.”

This is a thought echoed by Pullan: “Complicated displays that have enough information to keep you on a stand for a month are a major turn-off. No matter how interested in your product people are, a busy exhibition hall is not a good place to study a product in that much detail. Fast and concise communication is essential.”

Garry Clement-Boggis, creative director of stand design company Nimlok, expands on this point: “Audio-visual has been a ‘fashionable’ addition to stand design. At first it seemed a great opportunity to get movement and an information tool onto stands, but it has been ill-considered in many applications. ‘Stick a Plasma on it’ is not a rule, it must be considered in the overall impact of the stand design. It must add value, not simply be there because the customer has a corporate video they’d like to run.”

Clement-Boggis also endorses a more creative vision. “Visual impact isn’t just about the size of the stand or the number of huge plasma screens it has, it’s about using the dimensions at your disposal creatively. Height, colour, image, product and light all play a part. I have seen pop-ups that have as much visual impact as large stands, and exhibitors who hire whole halls yet lose their branding entirely. Spend your budget on more impact through good design rather than more space. Buy skill, not space.”

Campbell concurs: “We have used different materials and features to differentiate our stand from our competitors. We used boxes of fruit that were built into our stand with a transparent front. It gave us a distinctive shape and character, where simple graphics would not have been as effective. However, exhibitors must err on the side of caution with what they use. We did a trial run placing flowers in the same boxes and ruined several of our graphics when water from the oasis spilled down the sides. It is best to keep things as low-maintenance as possible.”

On the carpet

On a similar note, search marketing solutions company Search Works invested in a lime green carpet to match its logo. Although everyone at the company initially balked at the idea, in a sea of navy blue flooring the stand stood out a mile and looked vibrant, bright and inviting.

It’s important not to forget the part your staff play in your event. As the living and breathing extension of your brand, they can be key to making the right impression. Well-trained and informed staff can make your event, just as badly-trained staff can ruin it.

The training of stand staff is critical. Staff must have brand knowledge and be warm, and not pushy. Investment in training is well worth it.

“Arguably your people are the most important part of the stand,” says Campbell. “If your staff are bored or acting in an unprofessional manner, the customers won’t come to you. I once saw someone smoking on a stand at a show – not a clever idea. I don’t think he would have got many leads that day.”

Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you see other people getting it wrong, and it’s important to learn from these mistakes.

Lose the clutter

“There is no substitute for experience. Learn from your past successes and failures,” says Millican. “We have previously included enclosed meeting rooms as part of our stand design. It seemed like a great idea at the time – the perfect environment for meeting with clients and prospects – but in practice they proved stiflingly hot. Experience has shown us that a clear, crisp, uncluttered stand design works best.”

Lett rounds up some of the major turn-offs for potential customers at events: “Aggressive or uninterested staff; intimidating stand architecture which creates the feeling of a selection process and gives no time for acclimatisation; poor product showcasing – we’ve been to exhibitions in the US where drill bits look great and the latest technology looks dull – and audio systems that are too loud.”

However, getting it wrong is usually the result of being overly ambitious. Leaking water displays, dead goldfish in a glass wall, blazing projectors and flashing lights have all been seen at trade shows worldwide.

So how do you ensure you get it right? The advice is really obvious: keep it simple. If you can describe your stand in one sentence and get people excited about it, you’ve probably got it right. Anything you’re likely to forget the moment you leave the exhibition hall is probably not the world’s best idea.

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