Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

July 2012

CMP Series: Exhibit Hall to Exhibit Mall

By Barbara Palmer
to the show floor - sometimes literally, as at the Colombia booth, where a barista pulled one thousand fragrant shots of espresso on the show’s opening day.  Attendees visiting the Texas booth were met by a life-sized plastic horse and cowhide-patterned stools. 

At the Malaysia booth, sponsored by the Malaysia Convention & Exhibition Bureau, exhibitors hosted a cocktail reception that featured a version of a centuries-old spice market.  Booth staff, dressed in traditional attire, spread cloths on the floor and swapped merchandise, including pepper and other spices, for paper currency distributed to visitors, in an elbow-to-elbow cacophony of color and sound.  It was intentionally cramped, an exhibitor explained to an attendee, to make the market feel more authentic. 

In retail, when people physically get their hands on something and become engaged in some way, there is a lot more conversion, Davis-Taylor said, with customers turned into buyers.  Trade-show booth exhibitors, she said, can “do so much more than just hand out brochures, if you think about [exhibits] in terms of experience design.”

The Store of The Future

The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Annual Convention & EXPO, known as Retail’s BIG Show and held every January at the Javits Center in New York City, is the epitome of the distracted environment that Davis-Taylor describes.  As exhibitors vie to get noticed in the competitive field of retail marketing, “there are a billion banners in the air,” plus lights and entertainment, said Susan Newman, NRF’s senior vice president for conferences, who has worked for the organization since 2003. 

This year, attendance at Retail’s BIG Show increased 10 percent over 2011, to 25,000, and NRF expects that the exhibition floor - 140,000 square feet in 2012 - will grow another 22,000 square feet in 2013.  The 101-year-old show is expanding, Newman said, because the retail industry is changing so quickly.  She said: “People need to come to our show to figure out the next innovation.”

A century ago, the show was “all about hangers and displays,” Newman said.  Beginning in the 1980s, technology began to dominate the show, and now makes up 95 percent of exhibitor content.  And as the industry has been transformed, so has Retail’s BIG Show.  “The experience that we give our attendees, as well as what attendees experience at booths, has changed significantly over the last 10 years,” Newman said.  “I think exhibitors are trying to be more experiential about how they show [products].  So, it really does add a lot more excitement on the expo floor.”

In years past, NRF built what it called “The Store of the Future” on its exhibition floor, where the next generation of technology was unveiled to dazzled attendees.  But technology is now so ubiquitous, Newman said, that “most of the larger exhibitors are creating that ‘Store of the Future’ experience within their own spaces.”

Today, Retail’s BIG Show offers a Customer Experience and Mobile Pavilion, offering attendees demonstrations of multisensory environments.  Davis-Taylor, who formerly was a vice president at the New York City–based experiential branding and marketing firm Creative Realities Inc., helped design one of the pavilions, working with Creative Realities’ then-president, Robin Reardon, a former Disney Imagineer.  “We actually created a bunch of little ‘experience pads,’” DavisTaylor said.  Large digital screens bring attendees toward a series of dome-like structures, where they can choose a path, depending on their interests.  The domes are enclosed so that lighting, sound, and other environmental features - including scent - can be controlled.  “People were crazy for it,” said Davis-Taylor, who noted that designing customer experiences has a lot in common with live theater production.  “You have the lights, color, the conversations, the smells.”

'Is This Experience For Me?'

Creating environments that use the senses to trigger emotion is basic to successful trade-show design, agrees Paolo Zeppa, senior vice president and general manager of Immersa Marketing, A Freeman Company, because emotion is “the first entry point.  It’s where an individual decides: Is this experience for me, or not for me?”

Few mediums have the same potential to move people as face-to-face events and experiences - but when it comes to leveraging that potential, there are areas where trade shows lag behind retail.  And by ignoring key ways in which retailers are creating new customer experiences, Zeppa said, tradeshow organizers may unwittingly engender negative emotions such as frustration and disappointment. 

One example is retailing’s embrace of customization, which uses online and mobile digital tools to guide shoppers toward exactly the product they want, based on what they share with retailers about their preferences.  Successful retailers, Zeppa said, take the position that “there are a million consumer brands - let me show you what is right for you.”

And retailers aren't only customizing shopping experiences, they’re giving consumers ways to create their own custom products.  Coca-Cola, for example, has introduced a vending machine that lets buyers create their own flavors.  “It is not just about Coke and Coke Zero,” Newman said.  “You create whatever flavor you want.” Likewise, consumers are now able to add their own designs on their running shoes, or have their names stitched on the backsides of their jeans.  Newman said: “It’s all about being able to personalize a product.”

As consumers become accustomed to personalized shopping experiences, trade shows that don’t provide attendees with ways to easily identify and find the content that is personally relevant to them risk not connecting with them at all.  A large trade show may trumpet the fact that it has hundreds of exhibitors as if it were an absolute benefit, Zeppa said, but for many attendees, “1,700 exhibitors is not a value proposition, it’s a carnival.”

Increasingly, attendees will expect some form of digital compass to help them cut through the clutter.  Apple, Zeppa said, is a perfect example of how companies are redefining what is possible in the retail space.  The technology giant has developed a mobile app for use in its stores that not only guides consumers to products, but also allows them to scan product price codes and charge their credit cards.  Shoppers can purchase products without ever talking with a salesperson or standing in line at a cash register.  That kind of shopping experience, Zeppa said, “will totally change how groups behave and what they expect.”

“You can talk all day long about experiences that drive emotions, but if you have a [trade-show attendee] who has just walked out of an Apple store, they are going to have an emotional reaction when a trade show doesn't match up with what they just experienced,” Zeppa said.  “I look at my 15-year-old nephew and try and picture him going to a traditional trade show.  No way."

Indeed, there aren't many boundaries left when it comes to deploying digital experience in a physical environment, according Paul Price, CEO of Creative Realities, which has created digital installations in retail environments for clients such as National Geographic, Coca-Cola, and AT&T.  “The technology is catching up with our imaginations - and in some cases has caught up,” Price said.  Cost isn't the barrier it

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