The Millennium Dome has been the target of huge criticism in the media, particularly with regard to its organisation. Although the Dome’s content has not escaped attack, the full force of the criticism has been directed at the lack of consistency in quality and approach. This is mainly because the zones were handed over to the different sponsors which, in turn, appointed their own agencies to design and build the displays.
Despite the bad press, the zones are proving popular with the paying public who, on the whole, report their visit to have been enjoyable and worthwhile. For the exhibition industry, there are lessons to be learned from the approach taken by the more popular zones.
Most zones were designed by companies with a background in the live event industry. Given that the Dome is effectively a giant exhibition, there is very little input from traditional exhibition specialists. Rather, the likes of Imagination, Park Avenue, HP:ICM and Caribiner won contracts from leading sponsors such as Ford, BT, British Airways and Boots.
This should be alarming for traditional exhibition contractors, as live event specialists are taking an increasing slice of the commercial exhibition market. The first reason for this is that these companies undertake a wide range of work, such as internal communication programmes, conferences, product launches, corporate video production and design briefs. They are therefore familiar with the client culture and the marketing and communications programmes. Extending such work into the exhibition environment ensures that continuity is maintained.
But a further reason why so many of the major contracts are going to these companies is that their approach to exhibitions is different to the traditional stand. Stands typically comprise brochure racks, a large logo slapped on the exterior and perhaps a static display, video screen or product model thrown in to excite the punter. The stands may have a dramatic appearance, but the experience they provide is passive.
Derrick Tuke-Hastings, chairman of Park Avenue, the company responsible for the Living Planet zone, says: “Visitors to an exhibition have a fixed amount of time to spend. To encourage them to invest that time on a particular stand, you need to attract, involve and reward them. This is the approach we took with the Living Planet in the Dome. The audience may be different, but the environment and the principles are the same.
“In the Dome, we attract visitors to the zone using an intriguing design and the promise of a journey. Once inside, the audience is given a seat on a voyage so they are immersed in the environment, and are rewarded by the dramatic models, physical effects and visuals that tell the story.”
Park Avenue used this approach for the Opel stand at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show, where the car manufacturer celebrated its centenary. Rather than creating the traditional two-dimensional montage of pictures on the back wall of the stand, four “cyber cycles” were built to tell the story. These were modelled on the five Opel brothers’ five-seater racing bicycle, on which they won many races in the late nineteenth century.
The replicas were accurate in every detail, but they also featured high-resolution, virtual reality head-mounted displays. The public were invited on a four-minute interactive ride through Opel’s 100-year history and the next 100 years of the company, with the Opel brothers appearing on the head displays acting as guides.
The “cyber cycles” have a parallel in the Dome’s Journey zone, sponsored by Ford and designed by Imagination. The zone is a walk-through experience of what journeys mean to people using graphics, videos, vehicles, models and interactive displays.
Visitors have the option of tailoring their visit according to their level of interest. In ten minutes, it is possible to get a good understanding of the history and experience of journeys, and to see demonstrations of future transport systems. Alternatively, you can, for example, stop and use interactive displays to vote on key issues surrounding the future of transport planning, and instantly view the results of all those who have voted so far.
Imagination account director Andrew Horberry says: “The zone follows a strong narrative thread. At any stage visitors are able to orientate themselves, not only within the physical structure but within the overall story.”
Again, the storytelling theme has been used in the commercial environment with Ford’s displays at major motor exhibitions in Europe. With a brief to communicate what the Ford brand stands for, Imagination created Project Aurora – a reference to the dawn of a new era for the motor giant. This centred on a walk-through experience comprising a sheet-metal bridge which soared through a glass wall.
Below the bridge, an artificial lake contained revolving islands sporting Ford Focus models. As visitors walked across the bridge they were introduced to Ford customers whose life-size images were projected onto screens. Film sequences used responses from actual customers answering the question “What do you want from a car?”.
An evolutionary line of Ford models underlined the company’s recent design history and demonstrated how concept cars were transformed into the models now on the forecourts across Europe.
Easily the most recognisable zone in the Dome is Body, a giant model of two bodies that merge with a single head. Designed by HP:ICM, the zone is, again, a walk-through experience featuring giant working models of a human heart, pubic lice and a talking “Tommy Cooper” brain, complete with fez.
HP:ICM sales and marketing director David Tarsh says: “There were some very good stand designs submitted for this zone. But we stuck to our original idea of making a body to express the concept architecturally.”
Within the zone, set apart from the body structure, are a series of less publicised exhibits that go into greater detail. These include, for example, displays of alternative medicine, the make up of DNA, and the operating theatre of the future.
Tarsh says: “These areas are still story-driven. There is, for example, an area where you can learn about massage while actually getting a back massage. The complexity of DNA is demonstrated by a huge pile of phone directories to illustrate the amount of information that a strand of DNA contains, and the operating theatre is a working model. It features robots performing an operation under the guidance of a remote surgeon, using virtual communication techniques to guide the instruments.
“Like any good story, there are variations in technique, pace and style to knit the threads together. People get put off by repetition, muddled ideas and a constant pace.”
HP:ICM has applied this narrative structure to commercial exhibitions such as that for VW’s Dune, a sporty version of the new Beetle. The stand included a series of performances featuring singers and dancers, followed by a film shot in a desert outback.
“The show is good at drawing in crowds,” says Tarsh. But it also communicates the spirit of the car, and again the story employs changes of media and pace to communicate the message.”
It could be argued that the story-telling approach is made easier with huge budgets and lots of expensive floor space. But the creation of an immersive exhibition environment is not the preserve of such stands. MEI Design took the interactive concept one stage further with a simple stand design for Helly Hansen, which showcased its survival suit for yachtsman at ISPO, Europe’s sports trade show in Munich.
MEI managing director Richard Dale explains how the company came up with their exhibition concept: “The Helly Hansen management suggested I try the suit. This was done in January in a Norwegian fjord, where life expectancy in the freezing water is measured in a few minutes. But in the suit I remained warm, buoyant and comfortable.
“We wanted to re-create this experience at ISPO, and decided that the key feature of the stand should be a 4,000-litre stainless steel tank designed to demonstrate the survival suit.
“The water was chilled to near freezing point, and visitors to the stand were welcome to don the suit and climb in. Portholes in the side allowed other visitors to watch, and a touch-screen display gave information about the suit and the life expectancy of anyone in water at that temperature, both with and without such protection. The overall effect was a spectacular demonstration of the product, and potential customers had first-hand experience of what the suit could do.”
There are important lessons that the industry can learn from experiences such as these. With little product differentiation, branding usually makes the difference. While much of this branding is continued through exhibitions, too often the delivery doesn’t go beyond conveying the image – the branding, colours and message may be consistent, but the opportunity to interact with customers and create the brand experience is lost.
A static display is not an experience; it is something to look at and is usually forgotten. To make an impact on visitors, exhibitions need to incorporate them into the event. With a little imagination, this can be achieved – whether the stand is a two-square-metre shell scheme or a huge plot at an international show.