Exhibitions aren’t what they used to be. As recently as five years ago you might have expected to do little more than visit an array of stands and leave with armfuls of brightly coloured brochures. Now you can choose the information you want at the touch of a screen, design your own products, shin up a climbing wall to experience first hand the no-limits philosophy of a brand or listen to leaders debate the future of your particular industry while networking with important business contacts.
At a recent exhibition, visitors to pharmaceutical company Yamanouchi’s stand were invited to write down “what inspired them” on small discs of card and tie them to a metal tree that stood at the centre of a Zen-garden-cum-futuristic-beach, complete with gravel and water. At first glance it can seem as though exhibitors are simply working harder to get attention, but there’s more to it than that. Nigel Prabhavalkar, a designer at design agency Parallel Notion, which worked with Wonderworks to create the Yamanouchi stand, explains: “Yamanouchi wanted to present its work in the context of inspiration underpinned by traditional values. We took a more theatrical approach and created an environment where people could directly experience these themes, rather than just designing something around a blown-up logo.” And so it seems that, if pursuing your mind wasn’t enough, exhibitors are also after your heart.
According to experts, the changes reflect a shift in brands’ emphasis from products to philosophy, from “information-dumping” to dialogue, and, perhaps most radical of all, from talking about products or services in isolation to broadening the picture by providing a global perspective.
Andrew Reid, director of telecom and technology for multi-disciplinary design and communication company Imagination, has seen dramatic changes to the way that exhibitions are approached over the past few years and a readiness on behalf of clients to deviate from the tried-and-trusted. He says: “There’s more emphasis on talking about vision and values rather than products, with a move towards introducing activities that are evocative of a lifestyle or attitude.”
Strategic stand design
Jo Wilson, managing director of international brand and design company Cobalt, agrees: “Up until fairly recently clients were spending money on stands that did little more than showcase the logo. Now we are able to work with clients in a more strategic way.” When asked to create a stand for a specialist bar and restaurant show on behalf of Ministry of Sound, Cobalt created an invitation-only bar that struck the right note of credibility and cool and pulled the punters in droves.
So do these new measures actually work? Prabhavalkar says: “We included a visitors’ book on the Yamanouchi stand and we were stunned at some of the messages that were left. We’d succeeded in touching people on a human level and creating something they weren’t going to forget quickly.”
What about the Ministry bar? Didn’t Cobalt run the risk of people turning up, getting drunk and reeling away happy but no better informed? Wilson says: “Ministry wanted to find a way of communicating in a non-corporate, relaxed manner. The bar was staffed with employees who were ready to mingle and spread the word, and brand messages were delivered via audio-visual displays shot directly onto the walls. As far as everyone was concerned it hit the mark of being informative without being intrusive.”
Reid also explains that some of the changes in stand design reflect the fact that exhibitors are realising that, during any one exhibition, stands can be visited by not only consumers or clients but also investors, analysts and the media, all of whom want different information. As a result exhibitors are turning away from the more traditional stands towards creating sanctuaries with the provision of media, investor or other VIP lounges. Reid says: “We can provide business lounges or quiet spaces where journalists can write and file copy directly. This makes a real difference.”
The shift from information-dumping to dialogue also makes specific demands on staffing. It’s no longer good enough to fill stands with beautiful people whose only task is to hand over the brochure or CD-Rom with a smile. Reid points out: “Visitors want the level of information that usually only comes from senior executives who don’t have the time to do the exhibition circuit. This is where interactive technology can really help. Stand staff are not always effective at gathering information. For example, they might not ask the right questions. Interactive media can discreetly glean information but also, because it is pre-programmed, it remembers or knows what questions to ask.”
Reid suggests that the use of interactive technology can also allow exhibitors to capture vital information on how consumers think, or even psychographic or lifestyle data, but it doesn’t come cheap. The price for a minimum application starts at around &£30,000, but companies can spend as much as &£1.5m. For this money Reid says: “You are generally talking about an application that is going to have extensive, long-term use. In other words, the application ends up not only being used as a data gathering part of an event, it is also used as a Web-based experience or the bedrock of a customer relations management tool.”
For Wilson, interactivity is not just about using technology. He says: “It calls for a better way of creating a concept that focuses on realistic demonstration. The result is that the user truly experiences the product or service as it would be used in their work or home. If a kettle is on show it should be boiling water and making tea for people to sample its unique benefits.”
Companies are also teaming up to form exhibition coalitions. Wilson explains: “Microsoft offers a particular software application for use in the travel industry and SEMA Consulting offers project management consultancy, so they teamed up and came to us to create a joint stand demonstrating both propositions and how they can work together.” It makes sense to share the cost and double the impact, but it can be difficult to find the right partner whose business complements without competing with your own. Prabhavalkar points out that conflict over prominence and positioning can arise in such ventures and these must be carefully handled to ensure that the venture is a success.
Perhaps most radical of all is the move towards presenting products or services in a global context or showing how they fit in to a bigger picture while simultaneously shrinking the environment in which they are showcased. Imagination recently created “Citizens of the Openworld”, a two-day mini-expo attended by 700 delegates – “movers and shakers in the dot-com industry, national and specialist press, key city analysts, government representatives and VIPs”. Attendees were presented with a selection of new and future applications within the context of how these would change business and leisure in the future.
One of the complaints often heard about conferences or exhibitions is the absence of the really senior people, who are too busy to attend. These are the very people who want to know what’s going to affect their industry next week or next year. The Openworld exhibition is a good example of how to create a proposition that is just too compelling to miss, centred around a theme that allows the organiser to be positioned as an expert without challenge. After all, the future hasn’t happened yet and so you can’t be proved wrong.
The savvy marketer might cast a cool eye around the contemporary exhibition and point out that the changes represent little more than a diffusion of the strategies major brands have been using for years. After all, when a cup of takeaway coffee becomes the symbol of a global tribe, or we are invited to seek spiritual redemption through the purchase of a body scrub, an invitation to board down a run of fake snow in the NEC from someone who wants us to associate exhilaration with their brand makes perfect sense. And why not? It’s far more tempting than the thought of collecting a pile of brochures, paying &£20 for sushi and returning to the office with no great stories to tell.