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EN Roundtable: The evolving show floor

by Nicola Macdonald

The latest EN Roundtable saw event profs gather at K West Hotel in West London to discuss how the show floor is evolving, and what that could mean for the visitor and exhibitor experience.


  • Kimberley Barnes, Clarion Events
  • Simon Burns, ICHF
  • Nathan Garnett, Media 10
  • Dean Linehan, GES
  • Aleiya Lonsdale, Easyfairs
  • Nicola Macdonald, Exhibition News
  • Christine Martin, GES
  • Cathy Oates, Telegraph Events
  • Imogen Rudkins-Stow, Informa Markets
  • Tom Treverton, F2F Events
  • James Samuel, GovNet Exhibitions
  • Miriam Sigler, Ways & Means Events

Any exhibition show floor, whether trade or consumer, comprises a wide range of elements that hopefully contribute to its success. For our latest EN Roundtable we discussed how organisers have been constructing their events for the greatest visitor, exhibitor and stakeholder ROI.

To kick off the discussion, EN editor Nicola Macdonald asks Nathan Garnett of Media 10 to speak about the organiser’s frequently used entrance tunnel, first started at Grand Designs Live and borrowed for trade events such as 100% Optical.

“15 years ago that was how Grand Designs Live was launched,” he explains. “The concept was very simple: it was to bring people to the centre of an event and from there be able to guide them around the experience.”

At 100% Optical, that experience involved guiding visitors around specific sections of the show such as fashion and clinical, which in itself initially caused consternation among exhibitors.

“It was not easy,” continues Garnett. “We got a lot of pushback from the industry saying, ‘no one will look at testing equipment unless we’re next to a fashion brand’. It took three years of us trying to force the industry into accepting our idea and now they understand that it works.

“It was always about the visitor at the heart; let’s make it easy for them to find what they need at the show.”

The conflict of having exhibitors in easily defined sections versus mixed together to allow for that all important ‘serendipity’ moment, is one that Miria Sigler of event management company Ways & Means Events is all too familiar with, and she says that there is no consensus among organisers.

“It massively varies depending on the type of show,” she explains. “The other issue you sometimes see is kickback from sales, who are saying exhibitors don’t want to be next to a competitor. It’s about balancing a lot of different requirements but it‘s got to be what the visitor wants at the end of the day.”

Some organisers, adds Sigler, deliberately make their flatplans slightly difficult to navigate (the IKEA concept), which pulls people to areas of a show they might not have gone to otherwise.

Imogen Rudkins-Stow, senior operations manager at Informa Markets, points out that for European events in particular visitors may only attend for a short space of time.

“You want your visitors to arrive and be able to find the people they need and for the exhibitors to see the people they need as well. For Vitafoods we have segmented it into sections because we need it to be targeted to that people can find their way to the right area.”

Rudkins-Stow adds that one way to prevent smaller companies from being lost in the crowd is by focusing on having them within features. If they’re launching a new product or running content, the feature can refer visitors back to their stand.


Factors within our control

In the lead-up to an event a floorplan can be a fairly flexible thing. The ratio of exhibition stands to elements like features and networking areas can be largely dependent on the amount of stands that have been sold, and there is always that battle between commercial success and visitor experience. 

“From our point of view, running the consumer shows that we do, there are standard theatres that we have in each show,” says Tom Trevorton, UK portfolio director at F2F Events. “There are certainly standard themes that we know will attract a visitor. Ultimately we’ll build what the client wants, and sometimes you don’t know what that’s going to be until three months out or even two months out.

“There’s an unpredictability in what a client wants, but when you get a good idea you obviously run with it, and then it’s just about how it will work in terms of achieving the visitor flow that you want.

“That doesn’t necessarily just extend to features, my priority with exhibitors at the moment is engaging content. You know that the audience are sheep and the crowd will follow the crowd so the more exhibitors you have doing something different and doing something engaging the better.”

The basic grid format of the standard floorplan is mentioned, with Kimberley Barnes, event manager at Clarion, describing the logistical challenges of operating across several floors of a venue. The event team has brought in a new colleague to redesign the floorplan with the visitor experience in mind. 

Christine Martin, marketing director at GES, cites an example of a show plan that used organic curves, prioritising the visitor journey above all else.

“It was a totally different experience, they didn’t come from a trade show background so they weren’t thinking about yield per sqm, they were saying ‘I want this journey to look great,” she explains. “It’s a mindset flip.”

Aleiya Lonsdale, senior marketing manager at Easyfairs, comments: “We’ve done something similar at CCR, there’s networking in a circle in the middle and there are no ‘aisles’, you come to a stand and have to choose to go in one direction or the other.”

The topic of exhibitor training and masterclasses crops up, with most of the roundtable attendees providing some form of support for their exhibitors, and with several praising the masterclasses run by the AEO at the NEC and ExCeL.

“We invite a lot of our exhibitors to go on those, and we have a great response,” says Simon Burns, MD of ICHF. “And those exhibitors do better at shows because of it.”

Lonsdale adds: “We run our exhibitor open day alongside the masterclass, so they get an update about the show.”

Trevorton says: “If they’re new to the show they’re more likely to go, if they’ve been with you for a number of years they feel they know the show and it’s quite hard to get them to stuff like that.   

Burns comments that there is still a perception that getting visitors in is the job of the organiser, and that exhibitors can simply pay money and turn up.

At Construction Week, says Garnett, in the first year there were big brands on 3m shell scheme ,with a pop up, next to competitors with 150m.

“Unfortunately, that probably put that brand off for two or three years, because they know they didn’t do it properly,” he says. “We need to explain the value of exhibiting.”

Cathy Oates, strategy and business development director at Telegraph Events, asks if the group feels there are any grounds for organisers taking control editorially of how exhibitors appear and arrive.

“It would be more risk, but we would enforce that more strictly so that you wouldn’t get those situations where people are sitting with a table and a chair,” she adds. “We’re responsible for the look and feel.”


Growth for growth’s sake

The discussion turns to providing the best value for exhibitors and visitors, with James Samuel, portfolio director – tech at GovNet Exhibitions, wondering if there was a way to reduce overall costs for exhibitors while providing more profit for organisers, whether through sponsorship of satellite events or content.

“We know 25p of every pound might go to us, how about being more clever? We could get more from them and they could spend less,” he argues.

“And then you get that customer experience,” adds Rudkins-Stow. “They’re having a better time because those companies are still there and they’re being more engaging.”

Oates comments: “The big thing is that the KPIs our industry has been built on are driving behaviour. It’s growth for growth’s sake, but there have been shows that I’ve been involved in that haven’t been growth for growth’s sake and they’ve lasted many years and have been aspirational to get into. That’s an amazing place to be, it doesn’t mean you have less exhibitors, you have the right exhibitors and strong brand values.

“It’s a tough place to stay in an industry that’s enjoyed such fast growth.”

Martin adds: “Our experience is that a design and build customer will spend three to five times what they spend on the show floor to get their stand realised.

“However our best client is Boeing and we’ve had them for 21 years, if we don’t deliver on them meeting their objectives then we don’t keep them.

“If we’re just doing build and burn then that’s not good for us. There’s potential for collaboration with construction companies who will look for a three-year deal and want to ensure that whatever we build isn’t just good for one year.


If you’re interested in taking part in a future roundtable debate, email EN editor Nicola Macdonald on nmacdonald@mashmedia.net.

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