Despite all the talk of social media and other disruptions to traditional marketing activities wrought by recent advances in technology, trade shows are still a big deal in many B2B tech verticals. The trade show industry generated $31.3 billion (U.S.) in 2016 and has seen steady, if modest growth year over year according to Statista.

Our own experience supporting clients at trade shows on three different continents — Asia, Europe and North America — in the months of March and April made it abundantly clear that live events create unparalleled opportunities for quality face time with customers, resellers, influencers and media. It explains why trade shows appear to be growing and thriving instead of declining in revenue and attendance.

Here sampling of observations related to booth design we came away with after our attendance at recent trade shows, including the ISC West show in Las Vegas, which is dedicated to all-things security:

Booth Aesthetic

We aren’t supposed to ‘judge a book by its cover’ but the fact is we humans are pretty much wired to do just that. In fact, on average we tend to form an opinion about what we see in as little as 100 milliseconds. What does this means for B2B tech companies planning to invest in a trade show booth? Pay close attention to design because it may have an oversized impact on the amount of traffic your booth receives and how many new prospects you get to meet. 

While the ‘go big or go home’ approach is a tempting road to take, it’s far wiser to pour more resources into the overall design aesthetic of a trade show booth. For instance, at ISC West we saw some booths that were far from the largest on the convention floor, but they looked impressive and inviting.

This company’s booth is a good example of taking a minimalist approach. It projects impeccable taste, focuses the attention of visitors on fewer key messages, has great traffic lanes inside, and uses warm colors in the furniture and flooring to make the booth inviting. The video display is surrounded by a black wall, which helps focus attention on the video messages.

To some it may be patently obvious, but a booth’s design should reflect a company’s branding to ensure the customer experience is consistent with other marketing assets, making it easier for a customer to recall key brand attributes over time. That said, a booth can and should inject an element of creativity (lighting, wall design, carpet, etc.) to catch the attention of attendees distracted by all manner of sights and sounds.

Since booths are inherently architectural, like little office buildings, every element of design should be optimized to accomplish the goal of driving engagement with trade show attendees. Walls can be used to great effect, both in the shape they take and their placement in the booth. Lighting can be used to add dramatic effects, usually by highlighting key messages on walls or drawing attention to a new product offering. Colors can dramatically impact how we ‘feel’ about a booth — for instance, colors can make us feel warm and welcome or they can project professionalism and competence (provided, of course, they are consistent with a company’s brand guidelines). Booth furniture and carpet can enhance overall design, allowing companies to create intimate spaces for further interaction between trade show attendees and company staff.

The furniture color selection makes this part of the booth stand out against the darker hues in the carpet and walls, plus lighting adds warmth and focus on the seating area, giving a sense of intimacy in an otherwise crowded environment; kudos for using a carpet with some design elements instead of the boring, run-of-the-mill carpet found in many trade show booths.

Layout Matters

The layout of a booth can have an oversized impact on the way in which attendees engage with it and even the amount of traffic a booth stimulates and ultimately handles. Take the open booth concept as an example. Much of the content of an open plan booth is viewable from the trade show aisle, allowing a company to communicate more information to a larger number of attendees. A closed booth with walls on the outside, on the other hand, allows a company to play with design and wall messaging to draw in the ‘right’ attendees and then create a special customer experience that can feel far more intimate and curated than the wide-openapproach. Regardless of the approach, the layout should fit the overall design approach a company embraces or it risks confounding visitors with a jumble of shapes and displays.

This booth uses angles and a modern design aesthetic to great advantage, projecting an image as that of a market leader. The main focal point in the booth, a picture of a mother and child shopping in a grocery store, adds an important humanizing element to the modern design while at the same time shows that while the technology may be impressive it is still about helping keep real people safe and secure. The booth also requires visitors to step across the threshold to experience the brand and its technology offering; that said, its use of glass walls was a clever way to give it a sense of openness despite the closed-booth format.

This is an example of the open-booth format that allows trade show attendees to see everything in one glance. It’s open, inviting and easily accessed. The use of blue connotes professionalism and competence. Lighting could have been used to accentuate key messages; toning down some of the wall graphics might allow the key messages to pop more as well. Finally, a little warmth could be added to draw visitor attention to desired location in the booth.

Booth layout should always complement the company’s key messaging. Rather than show a jumbled series of messages about products and offerings with no particular organizational strategy, it’s far more effective to think of the booth as a narrative that can be communicated as a series of different yet connected scenes. Not unlike a Hollywood movie that works with an artist to conceptualize scenes before committing precious resources to shooting scenes, a company should sit down with booth designers to sketch out the design elements, matched with key messaging and product displays, to ensure the ‘user experience’ matches its budget and brand aspirations.

Product Placement

At trade shows, product still plays a key role. Some industries, not unlike the security industry as we noticed at ISC West this year, are pivoting towards full-tilt general solutions over a hardware approach. And for good reason. Products are easily commoditized and copycatted. Solutions that combine products and full-stack technology offerings designed for specific industries, on the other hand, will always be easier to defend and price at a premium.

Where a company places its product in the trade show booth can also impact how much meaningful traffic a booth receives. For instance, a company that places its product on interior walls may see more visitors inside the booth. It converts them from casual observers into interested visitors, and often results in meaningful conversations. The only downside? There will always be fewer people who will cross the booth threshold to enter into that deeper engagement.

A good example of a booth that places products and solution information on interior walls, which encourages visitors to deepen their engagement with the company. Lighting was put to good use as well, although it was not applied consistently across the wall — a missed opportunity.

By contrast, products sitting on a table on the perimeter of a booth tend have more eyeballs on them and can attract spontaneous interactions. But the natural flow of aisle traffic and tendency of visitors to resist direct overtures may impede a deeper engagement. At the end of the day, product needs to work seamlessly with the company’s overall messaging strategy and design aesthetic.

User Experience

Last but not least, the user experience of the average visitor is the culmination of what a booth ‘feels’ like, how it’s perceived, and ultimately how it will remembered. Popularized in other fields of design like consumer product design, web design, and application design, user experience is absolutely critical to achieving a brand’s goals at a trade show. It can impact booth traffic, how many new contacts are made, the number of new customer orders taken, and brand reputation.

For instance, a poorly lit and disorganized booth will leave visitors wondering how well the company is run, whether it can make quality products, and how good the follow-up support will be. A stylish-looking booth, however, complete with clearly marked messages supported by straight-forward demos, will invariably enjoy more attention and leave the trade show with more opportunities to follow-up on.

Make sure the booth has that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that will appeal to the key buyer personas expected to attend the trade show. Speak their language by addressing their wants and needs, and put on a great ‘live’ experience for them — then make sure your staff is trained up and ready to do business.

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