Today’s marketers and events managers are always talking about live events and the "brand experience". Yet at first glance these concepts don’t appear to sit comfortably with the traditional exhibition format, where a direct sales conversation or exhibitor thrusting a product brochure into the hands of a passer-by often defines the extent of two-way participation.
But times have changed and at the risk of being left behind, many exhibitions are revamping their format to offer visitors an engaging and interactive experience. One of the pioneers in this space is Media 10, a publishing house that branched into events through its flagship magazine, Grand Designs, with Grand Designs Live.
"We came at the events with a completely new approach – although not necessarily on purpose," admits Lee Newton, managing director of Media 10. "Not having too much knowledge about running an exhibition, we approached it as we would a magazine, thinking it would need a good base of features and a good front cover so that before a person walks into the event they are impressed."
As a result, Media 10 invested heavily in dressing the entrance to its exhibitions – there are two shows a year/ in ExCel London and the NEC in Birmingham – and creating a tunnel that guides visitors into the centre of the exhibition hall. In Birmingham, visitors were accompanied through the tunnel last year by a ragtime jazz band.
House that exhibitions built
Another break with tradition was the continuation of the exhibition outside the main hall. "The first year we built a house outside from scratch in 72 hours," says Newton. "This generated so much interest/ people would sit outside at lunchtime watching the house being built, so although they were taking a break from the exhibition we were still keeping them amused."
Exhibitors are also encouraged to let their creative juices flow. For example, at this year’s show, the charity WWF is creating a walkthrough feature that will allow visitors to work out their carbon footprint and, more importantly, how to reduce it. "So rather than just handing out leaflets for people to read, we’re letting them actually get involved with the feature," explains Newton.
Trevor Foley, chief executive at the Events Industry Alliance, believes the increasingly interactive nature of exhibitions is what’s attracting today’s consumers – and brands – to this marketing channel. "We all work and play harder now," he says. "So if we can achieve a multi-sensory experience we feel like we’ve made good use of a day. One of the reasons why last year’s British International Motor Show had such storming attendance was because it had a concert every night, so they were able to attract a whole mixture of people to the show at 4pm, which never used to happen."
With leisure time at a premium, people want to be entertained by exhibitions. "We have to deliver far more than a row of stands with a static presence; we have to bring a sense of theatre," agrees Julian Graves, marketing director at Clarion Events. At MPH – an event for 65,000 motor enthusiasts first launched by Brand Events but now owned by Clarion Events – the sense of theatre is interpreted literally with a 75-minute live action performance in a theatre seating 4,000, showcasing what Graves refers to as "live Top Gear" up to four times a day.
Shell, the principal sponsor behind MPH – which takes place at Earls Court, London and the NEC – used the show last year to measure the effectiveness of the launch campaign for its new high performance fuel, V-Power. The TV campaign was played prior to each performance in the theatre and Shell also had two interactive features – a pitstop challenge and scalextric set – on show within the exhibition. As a result of their brand presence at the show, 50% ofvisitors said they would be likely or very likely to use Shell V-Power.
It’s not just consumer events that benefit from an injection of excitement. A few years ago at Supercomm, a large telecoms trade show in the US, SPS built a live TV news studio for Lucent Technologies (now merged with Alcatel) and brought in reporters to provide a constant newsreel throughout the duration of the exhibition. "We had newsflashes to announce if Lucent had won another contract and the content stayed fresh over the six days of the event," says Peter Lewry, creative director at SPS.
But for brands not seeking the adrenalin rush of loud, fast cars or the thrill of a live newsroom, there are other ways to entice consumers to events. At last year’s Baby Show at ExCel, LoewyBe created an interactive exhibit for Pampers to promote its Baby Dry range. Visitors boarded a sleeper train and in each carriage they learnt how a baby develops while it is sleeping. "It was all focused around education but in a fun and memorable way," explains Sharon Richey, managing director of LoewyBe.
The previous year, the agency created an interactive forum at Crufts on behalf of pet insurance company, PetPlan, offering a range of guest speakers and discussion forums instead of the usual exhibition stand promoting their range of services. According to feedback from the event, 88% of attendees rated the content as very good or excellent and 97% expressed intent to visit the following year. "The future of exhibitions is about building on experience because you can no longer entice on sales value alone," says Richey. "This event was about building trust before the selling aspect came into the equation."
Recent exhibitions – such as the Luxury Travel Fair, Taste of London and the Baby Show – have proven there is a strong market for events connecting niche or small groups of communities. Next up, believes Chris Hughes, managing director of Brand Events, is connecting virtual communities through live events. "There is a basic human instinct that guarantees a natural relationship between digital communities and live events," he claims.
In May, Brand Events launches Who Do You Think You Are Live at Olympia, London, an event based on the television programme that helps people find out more about their ancestry. "It’s not a big subject in traditional media but it is online," he says. As such, ancestry.co.uk – the biggest online brand in genealogy – has signed up as the main sponsor. Brand Events hopes to engage audiences by not just featuring information sources for people interested in finding out about their family background, but also incorporating social history experts for visitors who want to find out more about a particular era or event back in time.
In fact, Brand Events has done away altogether with the traditional concept of selling exhibition stands at one of its events, Taste of London, an outdoor food festival. Instead, the company helps pay the cost of building marquees for its exhibitors in return for a share of revenue from food sales.
Media 10 took a similarly unconventional approach to another of its exhibitions, The Great Big Home and Furniture Store at the NEC, which was launched to coincide with the January sales. As its name suggests, the emphasis is very much on selling lots of furniture. So rather than selling exhibitors a stand, they purchased a "room set" for £1,000, which comprised space for a three-piece suite, coffee table, two side tables and a lamp.
"It worked tremendously well," says Newton. "We spent every penny on marketing and gave visitors exactly what we said, so they weren’t expecting celebrities but had loads of choice – there were at least 200 different sofas for sale – and the best price possible." One retailer estimates that he took £500,000 in sales over the three days, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that 60% of exhibitors have re-booked for next year’s show.
Putting on a show
A few brands have taken the initiative to reach out to consumers through their own branded events, such as O2’s Wireless Festival and Innocent Drinks’ Fruitstock, both held in London parks. "With Fruitstock, we created something that reflects what we are about and represents our take on a music festival," explains Innocent Drinks head of PR Ailana Kamelmacher.
It might not look anything like a conventional branded fair or exhibition, but these types of events are likely to become more common in future, as marketers try to engage consumers with their brands. For any exhibitors still hooked on the traditional exhibition format, Lou Fairhurst, account director at experiential marketing agency Sense, offers a word of advice: "Start by emptying the visitor goody bag of leaflets and think about filling their minds with more memorable experiences."