Let’s go outside!

by Denise Capello

Perhaps more than ever in this age of online interaction and communities, physical exhibitions and conferences offer a major asset that the virtual world cannot: genuine human contact. How can exhibition organizers best use their physical location to optimize matchmaking and knowledge transfer? How do you ensure that visitors and exhibitors return home inspired by useful new experiences?

The way people process information is changing fundamentally. While we all considered it normal a decade or so ago to gather round the TV at a certain time for a certain program, today we watch what, when and where we want. Most exhibitions are actually the hub of a community which is active throughout the year and exhibitors communicate via their own online channels. Yet this virtual activity serves merely to reinforce their interest in physical events as people who communicate via internet still like to meet in real life. While some thought that the rise in online activities would be bad news for the exhibition industry, face-to-face events have in fact remained as popular as ever.

High demands

Keeping all of the above in mind, we must still remember that, in this day and age, demands are more rigorous, visitors are more critical, and exhibitors want their money’s worth in terms of both the number of visitors and the value of the contacts. Otherwise, a private event becomes an attractive option–this was the conclusion of Cisco and the rationale behind Cisco Live, which has now been taking place regularly for years. For exhibition organizers to succeed in the battle against online communication and corporate events, we cannot base our behavior entirely on what has worked in the past. It’s time to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Connect people

So how do you ensure that your exhibition is an event with a wow factor? How do you make it worth participating in? Don’t think in terms of square footage or numbers of people; focus on effect–knowledge and contacts. Make sure that visitors and exhibitors experience something, surprise them, make them part of a story. This enables them to make better use of information and multiplies the effectiveness of networking. It allows the best use of face-to-face contact. And people are stimulated to truly start doing things differently once they return home.

The community as a basis

Inspiring examples abound. Take Burning Man, which has grown from a bonfire built by a few friends to an annual festival with tens of thousands of participants who form a temporary close-knit community. There is SXSW, which started as an alternative music festival and is now a conference, exhibition and festival in one. The Holland Heineken House at the Olympics has evolved into a place where fans come together to experience the games together with each other and with the athletes. And there is TED, where the audience is as important as the speakers. One can’t just buy a ticket for it – every visitor is screened and only people who are willing and able to contribute to the ideas presented are admitted. This has ensured unrelenting interest and had a major effect over time.

What do these events have in common? They connect people by providing an impressive shared experience and they focus on a shared goal. Visitors go home as changed people.

Turn it around

So have a critical look at your own event and ask yourself: what do we hope to achieve? Make sure that everything you do contributes to that goal. In this process there is much one can learn from developments in the convention industry. As the authors of In the Heart of Meetings stated, “in order to be effective, the program must be an experience that goes beyond the mere logical and cerebral.” How do we do that? And how do we use the physical space in an optimal manner at the same time?

Use different spaces–or use spaces differently

One obvious option is to look for a distinctive location: a train, a zoo or even a desert island… Anything is possible nowadays. Smart project developers recognize the need for original exhibition venues. For instance, look at this parking garage in Miami. People come to it as though it were a museum. The upper floor can be hired for events. The price is US$15,000 per night, and worth every penny.

That said, an original location offers no value in itself. Everything depends on what you do with it. Each location has potential but you do have to have the courage to exploit that potential. Think about this together with your exhibitors. They want to make as many effective contacts as possible during the exhibition. How can you use the location in a way that best helps them? Look at ceiling heights, colors or light: anything that can influence people’s mood or attitude can contribute to achieving the desired goal. For instance, the largest food and beverage exhibition in the Netherlands in 2017 will, among other things, include a greenhouse on the show floor which displays the growth process of coffee. In 2016 a renowned fashion exhibition freshened up its format by choosing a circular structure with fewer walls and paths, ensuring that the products received more attention. At the same time, an outdoor networking garden with live music and DJs provided opportunities for relaxed encounters. The only limit is the budget; other than that the possibilities are endless.

Look at the same space with fresh eyes

Turn the world around if that helps convey the message. And who said that rooms need walls? Use the park. Go on the roof. Organize a workshop in the kitchen. Use the transfer from the airport to do a unique presentation. Organize a race which generates strong networking opportunities. Look at familiar locations and surroundings with fresh eyes.

Where do we start?

Remember to take your expectations into account. Not every visitor or exhibitor is waiting for radical change. But standing still is not an option and will cause you to lose out to online alternatives or individual business events. Organizers who wish to beat the competition will have to ask themselves a few questions, the most important being: what is my goal with this exhibition and is its current format truly the best? Followed up by… Are there possibilities in or around the location which we can already use to better enable visitors and exhibitors to achieve their goals? If so, use this space! Experiment and don’t be afraid to fail. Start small. A session in the park can be a nice beginning.

Denise Capello is Manager Business Development, RAI Amsterdam. Opinions are her own. She can be reached at D.Capello@rai.nl.

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