Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

July 2012

CMP Series: Exhibit Hall to Exhibit Mall

By Barbara Palmer
once was, as the price of technology has come down while quality has improved.  “I see enormous potential for digital,” Price said, “for lots of different reasons.”

Some applications are what Price terms “inspir-actional,” improving or creating customer experiences.  For example, in Asia Coca-Cola recently distributed the Coca-Cola Hug Machine, a vending machine that, “if you hug the machine, it gives you a free Coke,” he said.  But digital also has great potential to serve more utilitarian purposes at a trade show, Price said, such as providing way-finding, as well as interactive platforms that allow attendees to continually engage with various aspects of any show by way of mobile and digital displays inside the exhibit hall. 

At Retail’s BIG Show, organizers a few years ago began to use “You Are Here” kiosks, similar to what might be found at a mall, at the entrances of exhibit halls.  The kiosks feature interactive touch screens, making it possible for attendees to select a topic and see all the booths in that category highlighted, and also provide short booth descriptions, maps to specific booths, locations of educational sessions, and, of course, directions to restrooms.  NRF’s kiosks are not “an unbelievable, state-of-the art kind of thing,” Newman said, “but attendees use them and love them.  It makes their experience a lot easier in terms of being able to find their way to the building and the exhibitors they want.”

Online retailers that guide us to selections that match our interests - such as Amazon.com - have trained us to yearn for experiences tailored to our interests, said Davis-Taylor, who used a kiosk similar to NRF’s at GlobalShop, another large-scale annual retailer exhibition, held on Feb. 29–March 2 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas. 

We are spoiled now,” Davis-Taylor said.  “I don’t want to have to go spend all day walking through a massive trade show.  I want to know which [booths] I would be interested in and to have them really easy for me to find, so I can plan my day to have efficiencies and a happy experience.  It’s very similar when we are trying to shop, and very similar when we are online.”

Don't Change that Omnichannel

Perhaps the biggest problems with trade shows as sales environments, Zeppa said, is that too many of them are treated by their organizers as entities unto themselves, when instead “they should be part of an overarching relationship strategy with their target audience, before and after events, and across different mediums.” For retailers, the key term now is “omnichannel,” Newman said, which seeks to integrate interaction across multiple channels.  “It is not just about mobile - although mobile is huge,” she said.  “It is really about how everything from your online, in-store, and mobile experience comes together.”

But being social - and socially networked - is not just about brands blurting out messages.  Rather, it’s about brands engaging with consumers.  “Consumers today have less tolerance for the ‘everything is beautiful’ marketing spiel,” Zeppa said.  “They are going to hear a message from a brand and then validate it with groups of individuals that they may not know, but they trust more the brand itself.”

Davis-Taylor agrees.  “You are going to do better when you get people to share,” she said, because sharing is an innately human behavior - and thanks to mobile devices, people are more accustomed than ever to sharing information.  “If I am at a show and can share [the things I like] with my compadres, why not?” Davis-Taylor said.  “I mean, seriously.  Talk about a good way to get booth traffic.  Seems like such a no-brainer to me, but I think a lot of [exhibitors] don’t know how to do it, or the people who are in charge of the show aren't giving them the platforms to do it.”

And isn't talking, shopping-behavior expert Underhill asks, the whole point? When his consumer behavior research and consulting firm, Environsell Inc., exhibits at a trade show, it employs all of its own best advice about engaging attendees.  “We recognize that the purpose of the booth,” Underhill said, “is often to have a 10-minute conversation.”

Six Lessons From Retail 

Shopping malls may have been introduced as a way to bring stores together, according to a 2012 trend report by New York City–based experiential marketing company Creative Realities, but what put them on the map was their ability to bring people together.  If you think that sounds a lot like a trade show, Creative Realities CEO Paul Price agrees.  Many of the suggestions that the firm aims at retailers are equally applicable to trade-show organizers:

Work with your turf
 Buying online has advantages, but don’t forget that physical interactions ignite emotions.  Grant attendees full access to your products and gain their brand allegiance. 

Physical meets virtual
 Remember that attendees often dwell within multiple contexts at once.  Fuse your online, mobile, and trade-show experience to create a symbiotic system - virtual should infiltrate physical, and vice versa. 

People are talking
 Tap into the actual behaviors occurring on digital channels like Facebook.  Complement your physical space with a digital presence that connects your brand evangelists with potential customers. 

Someone to love
 Don’t forget the power of human touch - use your staff to choreograph the dance between digital and traditional.  Your staff is your silver bullet - arm them with digital tools like tablets. 

Draw them a map
 Bid farewell to static directories. Use digital to direct attendees to the products and services they want. 

Ditch the still life
 Gorgeous graphic displays may attract eyes, but dynamic, digitally enhanced ones win hearts.  Leverage new technologies to replace static displays with dynamic ones that tell evolving stories. 

Trade-Show Anthropology 

Trade-show exhibits, like stores, end up being “some form of mix of art and science,” said Paco Underhill, founder of the consumer behavioral research firm Environsell Inc., and author of the influential best-seller Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.  

But one of the “poignancies” of the history of trade shows, Underhill said, is that there has been so little science, in the form of research, done to measure how well they achieve their goals.  “An enormous amount of money and energy gets put into producing them and constructing them,” Underhill said, “and very little energy or time or money is put into evaluating them."

It’s a little ironic, because show booths are in a better-than-average position to put research into practice quickly.  While the average, non-fashion store may only be redesigned every five to seven years, Underhill said, trade-show booths typically have a two-year lifespan. 

The most common way that trade-show organizers and exhibitors do research is through simple surveys, asking people, “Did you visit this booth? Did you like it?” Underhill said.  It’s better than nothing, but “the problem with surveys is people are often telling you what they think you want to hear.” A superior method, Underhill said, is to actually observe how attendees behave.  Look at things like what percentage of people who approach the booth are greeted, and of those who are greeted or who interact with somebody, how long do they stay? Also watch whether

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