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Content vs. Technology: The Real Trade Show Story

If you have ever added a touch-screen, iPad, QR code or any technological “flavor of the month” to your exhibit or event without first knowing why, or what content you were going to play, you may be a red-neck.

But, all jokes aside, we have all been guilty of this at one point or another. Sometimes the desire to add something cool to your exhibit or event is so overwhelming that we lose sight of what we really want to say. The good news is that there’s a cure; the content!

I recently attended Red7Media’s Event Design Summit in New York to listen to, and interact with, some of the leading minds in the experiential marketing world. There were several hot topics and themes that surfaced during the event but, one that stood out to me was “Content over Technology”. What really stood out was that this message wasn’t just being flogged by the creative community alone. Technology providers and developers alike were also speaking heavily on the perils of spending more (time and money) on good technology than on good content. Even Bill Gates, someone who has made billions from selling technology, proclaimed that “Content is King” in his 2001 article of the same name.

Let’s face it, anyone can buy the latest gadget, but good creative is a tougher commodity to come by. So, what will set you apart from the pack and cut through the noise? Simply be true to your message. If you start with a great message that is on brand, followed by well developed content, the medium used to deliver that content can be as high or as low tech as you like…. but the experience will always be memorable!

Next time you catch yourslef, or anyone else, saying something like: “I really want to have technology X in my booth”, just use this simple filter and ask yourself “Why?” If you can’t immediately answer how this technology will contribute to your overall message or goals, chances are, that it probably won’t.

Experiential Trade Shows: Redefining the “Box”

Fantastic Norway - Cardboard Cloud

We’ve all heard the ubiquitous term “thinking outside the box”. But, even as this stale phrase is finding its way to fossil status in the business vernacular, there is one place where it is more applicable than ever. 

In years past, trade shows have been a place to set up a structure, slap on your logo and spread out your wares. Well, times are certainly changing and so is the trade show. Creative marketers who find themselves challenged to squeeze the most out of this traditional medium, are increasingly looking beyond their booth for answers.  Some have tried tying their exhibit programs to online events, games and social media campaigns. Others have created multi-city mobile marketing programs that coincide with, and support, their traditional trade show schedule. Even within the exhibit itself, we are seeing a lot more theater and a lot less old-school selling. 

Whatever the tool or tactic, by thinking “outside the box”, these creative brand and event managers are completely redefining it. 


Over the last few months the long debate over “Experience vs. Structure” has surfaced regularly within the exhibit/events community. With exorbitant labor rates for set-up, drayage, shipping and other show-related costs, most exhibitors are looking for better ways of leaving an impression on their target audience without leaving an equally large impression on their marketing budget. One way is to focus on the experience and let the structure take a back seat rather than the leading role.  Continue reading →

What’s Your Event Really Worth?

How does $263 Billion sound?
That is the estimated value of the US Meetings & Event Industry according to a recent study found on http://www.meetingsmeanbusiness.com/

It was released by The Convention Industry Council and is entitled: The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy  

The study was conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers US and some of the highlights include that the U.S. meetings industry directly supports 1.7 million jobs, a $106 billion contribution to GDP, $263 billion in spending, $60 billion in labor revenue, $14.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $11.3 billion in state and local tax revenue.

To be honest, I was a little surprised by these numbers. When you consider that, by comparison, the North American airline industry reported revenues of $159 billion in 2010, this really helps put your next trade show, conference or event into perspective.

With meetings and events representing more than half the size of the US auto sector, I have to say that I find it very rewarding to finally learn how important our industry is to the economy. I’ll certainly walk the aisles at my next trade show with some new-found respect!

Bringing Trade Shows to Life with RFID

Trade shows have always been a Mecca for displaying and showcasing leading edge technologies. With so many displays vying for visitors’ attention, having the latest “toy” is always a great way to attract people to your exhibit.

In our last series of posts we discussed how trade shows and events are becoming more integrated with technology, with QR codes, live social media interaction and Augmented Reality driving the trend to hybrid exhibits and events.

Another rising trend is the use of Radio Frequency Identification or RFID to bring static displays to life. Essentially, this technology involves the use of a chip containing detailed information and a reader that activates various effects or reactions once the chip is detected. In 1998 British scientist Kevin Warwick made history by being the first person to have an RFID chip implanted under their skin. As a test, his implant was used to open doors, switch on lights, and cause verbal output within a building. Today, RFID has become more mainstream and it can be used to bring almost any environment or display to life.

“It’s Alive!”

Another classic use of this technology would be to embed objects with unique RFID chips. When an object is placed near an interactive screen equipped with an RFID reader, dynamic content comes to life around the physical object or interacts with it.  The image below illustrates this effect. An RFID-enabled glass is placed onto a Microsoft Surface touch-table. The dynamic content begins to swirl around the glass and follows it anywhere it is placed.


“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

According to Mike Zuganelis of StudioPMG—a digital marketer and one of the leaders in leveraging RFID for marketing— another effective method of incorporating RFID technology is through badges. Continue reading →

Evolution of Trade Shows (part 2): “The Hybrid”

In part 1 of this post we explored the increased acceptance of remote collaboration technologies and the ensuing rise of virtual trade shows and events.  At first many of us wondered if technology and an ailing economy would conspire to replace the traditional trade show forever. However, today we are beginning to see that something much more exciting and promising is occurring.  Real and virtual events have come together to offer traditional face-to-face experiences that also incorporate a live virtual component. These combined experiences are being billed as “Hybrid Events”.

The appeal of keeping the benefits of a face-to-face experience, while expanding your reach exponentially through virtual means, is easy to understand.  The increased ROI and larger audience is an exhibit manager’s dream, and hybrids offer the potential for both. When you consider the relative low cost of adding the virtual component to your exhibit, the proposition is a simple one to buy into.

All you have to do is follow the popular #eventprofs group on Twitter and it won’t be long before you come across a slew of event professionals professing and practicing the benefits of these “new wave” tradeshows. Emilie Barta is one such member of the online event community and she has long been a proponent and vanguard of the Hybrid Event movement. I have copied an abbreviated list of her top 9 reasons for going virtual with your trade show program here:

  • increase the size of your audience
  • extends the reach of your conference to a global community
  • gives those unable to attend the ability to still participate in your conference
  • creates new sponsorship opportunities
  • footage can be archived and used for further education and promotion
  • show that your association/organization is forward thinking and on the cutting edge of technology
  • enable year-round, never-ending conversations and interactions that reach beyond your physical event
  • more people involved in your conference means more idea-sharing and brain-storming
  • convert virtual attendees into face-to-face attendees at your next event

In the Hybrid Event, the online component usually represents a virtual duplicate of a face-to-face activity or display. Examples may include:

  • online chat with event staff and even with other (live) participants
  • interactive blogs that are written and commented on in real time
  • active commentary through social media networks such as Twitter, Linked In or Facebook
  • Live streaming video of conferences, workshops and speakers
  • virtual presentations such as web-casts

A leader in the arena of hybrid and virtual events has been Cisco. Earlier this year they were awarded the prestigious Grand Ex award and recognized for both the Global Sales Experience (GSX) and Cisco Live hybrid events. Not only was it the first hybrid event to win the Grand Ex prize, but this is also the first BtoB Event ever awarded this honor.

This is a promotional video for the Cisco Live hybrid events:

The video below (also linked above) is a case study of the potential power of virtual experiences as illustrated with the Cisco GSX event:  Continue reading →

Evolution of Trade Shows (part 1): “Virtually There”

The economic nosedive in late 2008 (and the corporate cut-backs that ensued) spawned a wider acceptance of virtual technologies that had a great effect on the trade show and event world.

As businesses mandated cuts in non-essential travel, web-based meeting providers such as GoToMeeting and WebEx saw a huge increase in users. This shift to adopt less expensive “off-site” interaction also helped drive the idea of virtual tradeshows. The last couple of years have seen a steady rise in virtual trade show “attendance”. Electronic media firms like PlatformQ and Unisfair began rolling out virtual fairs that were designed to look and feel like the real thing. Many of us in the event business watched this trend intently and even wondered if this was going to cause a major paradigm shift that would eventually send the entire trade show industry the way of the dodo bird? Well, in a nutshell, it did not.

A couple of years on and the jury appears to be in. The vast majority of virtual tradeshow users will agree that, while they can offer an information-rich and lower cost experience, virtual shows are best employed as an accompaniment to the real thing and not a replacement. According to a Champion Exposition Services study, one in four people planned to use a digital event platform in the association market. The study also found that 70% of respondents are actively producing, considering or interested in pursuing virtual events. However, many were not looking to replace physical events, but add on virtual components. So, even as Facebook and Twitter are becoming a mainstream reality of the business world, we still see physical face-to-face interaction remaining relevant. Why? Continue reading →

Are You Killing Great Marketing?

As an exhibit and event designer, many of my posts are written from an agency perspective. However, as creative director, a huge part of my job is getting inside clients’ heads and seeing the “big picture” from a multitude of perspectives.

One thing that has puzzled me for years is how, even with great research, planning and execution, great ideas very often get killed prematurely at the presentation stage, while mediocre creative seems to pervade the marketing world.

Well, I recently found an eye-opening explanation to this phenomenon in a series of old posts from one of my favourite blogs: The Ad Contrarian (written by Bob Hoffman, CEO of Hoffman/Lewis advertising). The three-part series is entitled How to Sell Great Creative and it offers great insight from both, an agency, as well as the client side. Bob’s background may be in advertising, but his points easily apply to exhibit & event design and all forms of face-to-face marketing as well.

Whether you are looking for great marketing or you are in the business of creating it, these three posts are a great read and I highly recommend them. You can check them out here:  The Big Show Let’s Do It On The Floor Ego and Failure

Bob makes two key statements that make up the foundation of his position. Firstly, “avoid the large boardroom pitch”,or the ”BIG SHOW” as he calls it. Here’s an excerpt from his first post: Continue reading →

Walk a Trade Show in My Shoes

It’s been a while since my last post. When I finally picked up the proverbial pen and began debating what to write about, one topic I’ve wanted to touch on for a long time jumped out. At the risk of being too industry specific, I’ve always wondered: How many designers entering the exhibits & events field have ever actually worked (or even attended) a trade show?

At first this topic may seem confined to the exhibit/event design world, but, if you’re in the business of purchasing, selling, working or even managing a tradeshow booth or event, maybe you should consider this question for a second. It sounds absurd, but we take for granted that a mechanic has driven a car; that an architect has lived in a house. These are fairly universal things, but what about trade show exhibits? Do the people you entrust to counsel you on experiential events and environments have any real foundation of experience in the practical application of their ideas? Continue reading →

The Tao of “Why”

No, this is not a philosophical discussion. Consider it an approach to successful communication.

More than any other word, “why” has the ability to imply a search for deeper meaning. It is also something that I increasingly find myself asking. Whether in work or life, the need to understand and rationalize the “why”, or in fact, the very importance of any given decision, has become a bit of a habit for me. I didn’t understand it at first, but a great article by Phil Roybal of The Hill Group just seemed to crystallize my obsession with this question. The article is entitled “Drive listeners to your view by starting with “why”.

Phil opens his post with this great introduction:

“When I talk to audiences, I try to lead with the juice, the core value, the “why”. This is the way, really the only way, to bring them to my point of view. Tech seer Alan Kay says “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.“ It’s the why that provides that perspective, allowing listeners to buy into a concept; a decision they then justify with the facts you give them. Simon Sinek, in his book Starting from Why, talks about why this approach works and how to apply it to your situation.”

He goes on to explain the practical application of “why”, using references from the world of marketing. I operate in the world of face-to-face marketing and this methodology is even more poignant when applied to telling a story through tradeshows and events.

I quickly realized that Phil’s affirming point of view is something that I must have already understood at a subconscious level and even found myself manifesting in my professional life. For example; rather than simply following a design brief, I’m now constantly at odds with the motives behind a client’s request.  After years of designing exhibits, events and campaigns, I have developed a real curiosity for understanding how clients set their goals and targets to begin with.

It has led me to not just do, but to probe, question and examine in order to gain deeper insight. I have found that by simply trying to understand “why” a client is heading down a particular path, or by helping them to understand the true reason behind their request, the “how” just seems to fall into place.

So next time you’re sitting in a meeting and everyone is spit-balling ideas and coming to decisions, stop for a moment and simply ask “why”. If you can answer in one sentence, you’re probably headed down the right road. It is probably the best litmus test for ideas I have come across. It will also result in a clearer understanding of your purpose, which translates into messaging that is more pure and that your audience can better connect with.

I highly recommend reading the whole post. Phil also links to this great TED talk by Simon Sinek where he expands on these ideas.

The Art of Low-Tech Interactive Exhibits

The last few years have seen a huge increase in the use of technology to drive audience interaction in the trade show and event business. The sad part of this trend is that the technologies being employed often have little or no connection to the goals or theme of an event.

In the past, exhibitors might have compensated for uninspired marketing by having sports cars, video games or even attractive models drawing attention to their booths. Today those things have largely been replaced by gesture screens, touch tables or holographic projections.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not averse to such tactics when they are well executed and paired with great content… I’ve used them several times. However, I am opposed to technology for technology’s sake. I recently read a very refreshing article on NOTCOT.COM that threw me back to a simpler time… and gave me some real inspiration.

The focus of the story was the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany and, in particular, the sliced Porsche cut-aways that featured the inner workings of the vehicles and the design process used to create them. Although the technology necessary to create these slices is pretty cool in itself, the displays remain fairly “old school” and passive. But it was the author’s enthusiasm and wonder at the workmanship and meticulous detail of the cars that reminded me of similar experiences I’ve had at museums, science centers and exhibits throughout my life. It also left me wondering; in this age of cost savings and down-sized budgets, what other low-tech interactive ideas have imaginatively found their way into tradeshows and events? Here are a few I’ve come across. Continue reading →