Shopping for Ideas at Retail Trade Shows

As a record number of major retailers declared bankruptcy in 2017, the death of brick-and-mortar stores became a recurring media story. Case in point: an article in The Atlantic last year listed three possible reasons for the “recent demise of America’s storefronts,” citing the fact that more people are buying products online than ever before; there are too many malls in the U.S. relative to the population; and consumers have shifted their spending away from material things to experiences, like traveling and dining out.

But by focusing on that last trend — creating experiences — successful retailers can buck the downward spiral, according to professional services firm JLL, which recently published a report: “Beyond Buying: How successful retailers, across 10 sectors, are creating remarkable experiences that deliver on six fundamental dimensions.”

Considering the similarities between a retail environment and a trade-show floor — and the challenges they share in creating experiences that engage shoppers and attendee/buyers — Ron King, general manager of Cleveland’s Huntington Convention Center, said the events industry would be smart to watch what retailers are doing today. “There’s some decline in retail and getting people into stores, so retailers are forced to be more creative,” King said. “Not unlike show organizers trying to coax attendees onto the show floor.”

Convene set out to see what exhibitions serving the retailing industry are doing to make the “shopping” experience more engaging for attendees. Their approaches speak to conventions in other industry sectors as well.

Rethinking Layouts
One strategy is to reconsider the traditional format of booth spacing — one after another, aisle after aisle — in the exhibit hall. “I’ve seen a big wheel where aisles are done in a series of spokes,” said Susan Newman, senior vice president of conferences for the National Retail Federation (NRF). While reinventing the wheel might have seemed like a good idea, in reality, “the format didn’t maximize space well, and doing carpets was hard,” she said. Last year, NRF’s — an event for retail professionals in strategic planning, e-commerce, marketing, merchandising, IT, user experience, operations, and data analytics — tried a new layout expressly designed to get people to spend time on the expo floor. “We put all the content right in the exhibition hall — the keynote speaker, the breakout rooms, podcast suite, the garden area,” Newman said, “all designed to keep attendees under one roof and walking through the exhibits.”

Some shows are organizing the expo space by category or theme, spotlighting industry segments together, to make it easier for like-minded attendees and exhibitors to find one another. For example, in January, the global floor-coverings industry show Domotex 2018, held in Hanover, Germany, rearranged its hall layout to bundle product segments in dedicated display areas.

The ISPO Munich 2018, an international trade fair for sports professionals and enthusiasts, took that idea one step further. After conducting an extensive consumer survey in 2017 to glean insights and opinions from brands and retailers, the show in January expanded the hall concept to provide an overvie of the entire sports industry, according to Markus Hefter, exhibition group director.

“The outcome [of the survey] led to a new setup with new segments presented for the first time, representing the current status of the sports market,” he said. Categories — including areas like Snowsports, Urban, and Teamsports — were clustered throughout 16 halls. “Products were not simply displayed in their hall. They were placed on center stage, and trends were showcased. Our goal was
to motivate and excite retailers, and the concept was really popular.”

Within the booths themselves, organizers are seeing a shift toward unexpected visuals in inviting spaces. The “un-booths,” as they’re called by some, are being reimagined as shops or hangouts with lounge seating, recharging facilities, even co ffee shops and bars. Space-defining features are hot, from igloo-like tents to large umbrella-style canopies. These large structures can be boosted with lighting and customized with logos, graphics, and branding colors — features that work together to “tell a story to drive brand presentation,” said Nancy Michael, senior manager, trade show business development, International Housewares Association. “The total experience of the booth should parallel the marketing message.”

High-Tech + Data
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and projection mapping — which projects imagery and light onto a static object, bringing it to life and giving the impression of a larger moving space — are making their way to exhibit floors, and Newman thinks that’s a good thing. “The more futuristic, the cooler,” she said. “We’re big into surprise and delight to energize attendees — interactive activities, gamification, and entertainment factors at the booths.” Demos of robots pulling things o the shelf and o ering relevant information to attendees also add to 3D printing, she said. “We create a view of the future to drive attention-getting crowds,” Newman said. “Buzzworthy pavilions are big in this realm for getting like products in one place.”

Collecting data on what attracted the most attention enables organizers to find out more about how their event functioned by examining traffic patterns on the show floor and gauging the popularity of certain events. These are valuable insights for exhibitors. “If I were an exhibitor, I’d be very interested in my placement on the floor,” King said, “and in data showing how many people walked past my space compared to my competitors.”

Bluetooth beacons, which record traffic through mobile data, and wearable technology like smart badges are among the ways event organizers are gathering this kind of data. Smart badges not only offer detailed data about attendee movements through the show, they can also can amp up engagement, lighting up when the attendee is in close proximity with others who share their interests. In addition, smart mats record traffic easily and inconspicuously, and offer immediate stats on high- and low-flow areas, bottlenecks, and under-visited sections.

Heat maps take it one step further, picking up attendee movement by reading and tracking Wi-Fi-enabled devices like smart phones, creating a graphic visual of “hot” areas. The tracking can also offer information about how long an attendee stays in a particular section, and help event planners learn which areas drive the most traffic — what booth “real estate” is more valuable than other areas. This kind of information is critical for decoding retail puzzles like where to position critical staff and objects.

Heat maps also provide insights to exhibitors about the real estate within their booths. “Certain areas of a booth are higher-value properties,” said Katie Hunt, founder of Tradeshow Bootcamp, which has coached 800 brands now selling in stores like Paper Source, Container Store, and Anthropologie. Heat-map data offers retailer exhibitors insight into where foot traffic pauses, which follows where the eye pauses. “Their best bet for maximizing this information is remembering where the eye is naturally drawn; from three to six feet high in the center, plus the ends and edges. As people walk by, they see what’s on the ends rather than the middle.” She advises clients to get attendees to “yes” by marking everything clearly, including the minimum order quantity and SKU number, and having an order-placing mechanism accessible so a potential buyer can self-serve if exhibitor staff is busy.

When it comes to booth materials, there is a shift toward natural — wood, recycled timber, and fibers — as well as industrial textures like concrete and metals, and other reused and repurposed materials. “Many interesting materials are being used that are lighter in weight to offset drayage costs,” Michael said, adding that some of the materials have the added benefit of being recyclable. Since King said that he sees “more and more planners wanting sustainable practices,” he expects there will be greater emphasis on reusing materials rather than them winding up in landfills.

There are even a few companies, Michael said, “making innovative display fixtures out of corrugated box. You can order everything from display fixtures to seating, and it has a very earthy and contemporary feel to it.”

From the look and feel of the entire show floor to the look and feel of each exhibitor area, innovation seems to be the watchword. “There’s a whole new mentality and expectation from younger people, who want to be entertained, and whose attention span is much shorter,” Newman said. “My feeling right now is that if you’re not doing something different and unique with your trade show, you’re going to be struggling as you move forward.”

To download JLL’s “Beyond Buying” report, visit

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