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Tobacco Dock: Experience is everything

by Emily Wallin

For London’s Tobacco Dock all events have to wow their audiences and those who forget risk dying, co-founder and director Jonathan Read spoke to Emily Wallin for the latest issue of Exhibition News. 

Visitor experience is paramount to every event at Tobacco Dock.
Built in 1812 as a hub to bring in the rare delights of the New World into London, the Grade I listed venue in the East End is still trying to delight with new experiences.
With live events returning to full throttle co-founder and commercial director Jonathan Read believes that the value of experiences – and more discerning demands of clients is only going to grow.

Consumer clients and creative agencies have already grasped the concept, but the need for B2B events to evolve into being more experiential should not be underestimated he says.
“Going back to when Patrick Donovan and I first got involved, what we saw as opportunity, apart from the fact that there was a shortage of large scale space in London, was actually the need for more interesting space.
“That applies as much to exhibitions and trade shows as it does to product launches or consumer events.
“Our starting point apart from how the space can work, was how can this amazing 200-year-old Grade I-listed building support what happens inside it? How can it be a catalyst for creativity?
“Our typical creative agency clients recognise that and embrace it. The exhibitions sector is a little more challenging. We have clients who absolutely see it and can’t see their events anywhere else.”
The experience for organisers hosting events at Tobacco Dock goes down to the most minute detail, but might not suit those determined to stay stuck in their ways, says Read.

1920s model

“Typical exhibition organisers still have 1920s business model,” he says “They are thinking ‘if I rent this space for X amount how can I turn X into 4X.’ It’s all about return on space. Nothing about experience.
“Which is why those who take a massive exhibition hall fail to see the vision at Tobacco Dock. Fundamentally you waste space unless you can see the vision that you are adding value through experience.
“At the simplest level, exhibitions are a showcase for your brand. You can still sell space at Tobacco Dock but in a different way. If you look at what clients like the Festival of Marketing have done, Adobe becomes an experience zone.
“We are now in a supercharged era of people craving experiences. It was already building well before the pandemic. People will invest their hard-earned disposable income in an experience, but it’s got to wow.
“Bike Shed does it incredibly successfully, because the starting point is not ‘how can our stand holders sell more bikes’, it is basically a curation of fantastic machinery. The detail they go into comes right down to making sure the brand of coffee served in their clubhouse in Shoreditch is exactly the same as the coffee at the event. That’s the level of detail. We work with their head chef to curate the street food, designing the overall customer journey to deliver the experience people are craving.”

Unique experiences
Tobacco Dock’s clients see the value of the unique experiences the venue can help them create.
“Return on your space is a short-lived triumph if there is no engagement for your sponsors and for your exhibitors,” says Read.
“The design is crucial to the process. In 2022 it’s no longer good enough to say ‘we promised we were going to deliver you an audience of 20,000 people, 20,000 people have come through the doors but actually they were disengaged by the show’. And that’s why shows die.”
“We saw a trend in festivalisation in B2B events five or six years ago. And part of the reason for that was having a different tempo for different parts of the event. The whole thing can not be at 100 miles an hour and reliant on keynote speeches. There is a rhythm to these things, you know people are going to gradually slow down and then need a lift.
“Take the example of Salesforce and Dreamforce. It’s designed as a festival but it’s absolutely a B2B conference.
If you’re a big Salesforce partner wooing particular customers, you’re basing the experience you’re delivering on a hospitality experience not an exhibition experience.
“If you look at some of the new shows coming up like Festa [Portuguese wine festival 24-25 June] They didn’t want a greenfield site, didn’t want to go into BDC, Olympia or ExCeL. They wanted a festival feel and that’s way more cost effective to achieve at Tobacco Dock, rather than taking a hall somewhere and dividing into zones and trying to recreate that experience.”
Great experiences are not all about aesthetics. Technology, hygiene and accessibility can all contribute to creating the perfect event environment.
“Technology has a place in all of this,” says Read. “Use technology to enhance an experience or customer journey. Some stuff was happening pre-pandemic but it’s accelerating now.
“Our Wi-Fi network can heat map, so it’s a real boost for organisers. We always encourage people to log on to our Wi-Fi, which is free for visitors, then [organisers] can use that data to see how people move around an event.
“You can scenario plan – if I put a catering unit here what will the impact be, new shows especially are experimenting with layout and want to improve in future years. You can see where there are dead spots or too much traffic or more signage. It’s really interesting. The first attempts were done with Bluetooth and beacons, but that becomes difficult with critical mass.”

For those interested in the latest technological innovations, Tobacco Dock also has it’s own metaverse – a digital version of itself in which visitors can become virtual versions of themselves. It’s an added feature for physical visitors but also extends their reach around the world and to those unlikely to attend in person.
Read continues: “Hygiene factors and accessibility has to be considered to make the experience as comfortable and welcoming for all your visitors.
“Sustainability also has to be a consideration in how a show is designed these days. And healthier choices. The whole experience, the choice of food available, reflects your audience as well, that goes beyond dietaries, but the quality.
“People are investing in a day out and what you don’t want is people thinking ‘I’d better eat before hand because the food is overpriced and crap’. You want them factoring in 90 minutes to enjoy some great food. That includes healthier and non-alcoholic options. Give people a choice.”

With living costs rising Read says the pressures to live up to visitors’ expectations will continue to grow.
“There are economic pressures, whether its disposable income or household utility bill, that all leads to people being more discerning about the experiences they invest in. They will be ruthless in the age of social media and give instant feedback if the experience doesn’t deliver.
“What’s really important for exhibitions is the organiser having far more sway in terms of creative direction. If you’re dividing the space up and selling as a shell scheme that’s what you’re going to get, but if you look at, say, interior design shows there is a level of curation over the whole thing. Yes, they want to sell space to antique rug dealers, but even so there is an overall creative vision about how it’s going to look. That’s incredibly important in interior design. Of course you can not have an interior design show in a place that looks like a village hall. But that’s also important in B2B shows.
“Maybe people have got a bit lazy about the creative process.
“Don’t be creatively lazy. You have to be even more entrepreneurial about how you imagine the show because you’re not going to have a show unless you deliver on the experience you’re promising.”

Bike Shed images by Amy Shore. 

This feature appears in the April issue of Exhibition News

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