Exhibitions have been on the receiving end of a swathe of bad press over the past 12 months, with the industry accused of many things from failing its clients to failing to move with the times. However, like so much of the media around us, a large proportion of the problem can be put down to diversification and segmentation. There are now so many types of exhibitions on the market – from small, targeted boutique exhibitions through to massive consumer events – that it is little wonder we hear people shouting about falling visitor numbers. While this may be true, many exhibitions are claiming increased quality of attendees and a rising spend per head and that they are one of the few media channels that enable brands to interact with audiences that are there by choice.
With the array of exhibition options available to modern marketers, companies need to be sure they are approaching each one in a way that will maximise its impact. But no matter the size of the event, there are basic principles that do not change.
The audience is key
Fundamentally, exhibitors need to know who is going to be at the show and what they are expecting to see. “Understanding your audience is crucial to getting the right experience for the right exhibition,” says Simon Burton of Exposure Event Creation, who organises the Exhibiting Show. “This might involve talking to the event organiser, who should have a very good idea of who their audience is and what that audience is looking for. Remember you are creating an experience for the audience not for yourself.”
Burton points out that key objectives should be a driving force when establishing any event presence. “Whatever you do should be designed to deliver on your objective. You are embarking on a live performance and your stand is the stage.”
This is echoed by Richard Edwards of communications agency Quatreus, who also stresses the importance of putting the audience first. “Stand design, displays and marketing activity should be defined by the audience – irrelevant of the size of the event. The sole requirement of any stand is to create an experience that the audience will participate in while retaining brand values.”
The next step is marketing. A simple approach is to exploit the range of options the event organiser has to offer – from advertising and e-shots, to DM and PR. “Exhibitors need to take a proactive approach to promoting their presence at an exhibition if they want to get the most out of it. It is vital that full use is made of all the sales promotion, direct marketing and PR techniques that are available to exhibitors before, during and after the show,” says British Promotional Merchandise Association chairman, David Lebond.
Burton agrees: “You need to get prospective customers thinking about you before the event. To maximise your impact you should be priming the audience so that they seek you out at the show. Whatever you do on the stand should be encouraging word of mouth in the hall. This is as important for small events as for massive consumer shows.”
An original approach
Creating word of mouth and attracting people to a stand takes more than a couple of pens and a large bowl of mint imperials. “Originality, rather than design, is the key to an effective presence at any event,” says Mike Bell of event production company Cleverworks. “The audiences are used to high quality finishes and build – that is becoming the norm – so that elusive ‘wow’ factor is getting harder to produce off plan: ‘wow’ needs to include strategy and action on the stand, rather than striking concepts off-plan. A beautiful stand-alone does not draw visitors in: intrigue and discovery are key. Once you have drawn attention to your stand, with its presence, with its cleverness, you then need to draw visitors in. The stand has to work hard for both visitors and hosts, while the hosts have to work hard for the stand and visitors. A great stand will suck people in.”
Lebond believes that incentives can play a key role. “There are numerous ways to generate a buzz around an exhibition stand that will have the visitors flocking: competitions and free prize draws; jugglers, magicians and mime artists; canapés and smoothies; people on stilts, and the old favourite – glamour girls. Grabbing the attention of passing visitors is an important way to open business discussions, so make your stand ‘stand out’. If you provide a spectacle for people to talk about, then word of mouth should ensure a steady stream of visitors to your stand throughout the exhibition.”
Lebond cites the example of last year’s National Incentive Show, where an exhibiting company was giving away a new Mazda sports car. This attracted many visitors to the stand. Although he points out that giveaways don’t have to be hugely costly to be effective.
Tom Treverton of the Events Industry Alliance, takes things a step further: “The use of digital technology, whose key characteristic (as with event marketing) is ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ will disseminate any incentive easily and efficiently, and draw in an exhibitor’s audience. Also, entertaining and educational experiences are high on the list of reasons to attend both consumer and trade events, so on-stand demonstrations, or related interactive activities can be very popular and equally effective. On-stand events can be tailored to suit different segments of your target audience, either by day, or by session if needs be.”
Treverton also explains that a great display can be a useful trick as it will literally stop people in the aisles. “The rule is to make a ‘show’ of the recognisable elements associated with your brand,” he continues. “For example, if you’re a company known for bananas, do something interesting with the product; create a living sculpture that will stimulate all five senses. Anyone who knows the brand will be attracted to the display and those that don’t will stop by out of curiosity.”
Edwards agrees: “It’s not enough simply to draw people onto the stand; you have to engage with them and the way to do that is through interactivity. You should aim to do something that is innovative, interesting and different – and involves the audience – allowing them to interact and experience. That way you will engage with them on a much deeper level.”
Strategies that work at consumer shows are not always the right approach for smaller B2B events. As Amanda Simpson, marketing and communications manager at Warwick Conferences, says: “Size does matter. Larger events typically require larger stand space to create the same impact. With a large show everything must be bigger to create an impression – the stand space, the stand design itself, staffing, any visuals on the stand and any presentations must be displayed in proportion to the stand. Smaller B2B events benefit from a more tailored approach focusing on a particular section of the market. This will have a huge effect on how you plan your event.”
Treverton agrees: “There are, indeed, a number of fundamental differences between B2B and consumer events. From a stand design perspective, a popular brand can be swamped at consumer events, which calls for stand design to incorporate (often quite robust) crowd control measures to limit access. Leading brands may invest in a large attractive stand for the general populous, yet add a second, smaller, more business-focused stand, where the serious buyer can be entertained”
On the B2B side, the norm is for more open, accessible and inviting stand environments. That said, there are many that advocate enclosed stands, with fully trained staff on hand to adequately vet passers-by, only allowing access to those who ‘qualify’. The latter technique tends to be employed by more ‘savvy’ exhibitors at well-attended events, the thought behind this being that stand resources are limited – from technical staff to literature – and that, while your sales staff are dealing with a ‘tire-kicker’, a real lead might be allowed to slip through the net.”
The difference between consumer and B2B events is people. Audiences are diverse and not just in terms of volume. For example, professional visitors to B2B shows tend to expect to meet and engage with senior people. Exhibitors, therefore, need to make sure that the people staffing their stand reflect this. It is these differences that should drive the creative process. Essentially, the key issues affecting performance at an event aren’t design, they are people, activity and follow up, and stand design and architecture should be focused on helping those elements come to life.