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An article by designer Miriam Becker

Trade fairs have been around for more than 1,300 years. All along the major trade routes, temporary exhibitions sprung up where traders would present their goods. So it would be wrong to think that trade fair construction is now suddenly being revolutionised. The trade fair business has always been a reflection of economic trends, cultural influences and innovative developments. So is the trade fair construction we see today and in the future really anything new? Yes, actually. We are currently going through a major transition.

As a specialist that has followed and shaped developments in this market for exactly 50 years, we closely observe key influences and have come up with five theories which we discuss both internally and with our customers. The major challenge for future projects will always be weighing up and implementing these theories in a way that is individually tailored to the customer and in an effective strategic context, rather than looking at them completely separately from one another. This is a task that is certainly firmly rooted in design – but needs to be thought of holistically, always with the central idea of “spatial communication” in mind. So let’s get started:

Theory 1

Digitalisation takes everything to the next level

Tablets at the booth, touchables, 3D glasses and AR overlays: these digital possibilities are not the kind of digitalisation that will actually change the booth of the future. It is the digitalisation of the customer that will lead to completely new concepts for exhibits. Traditional industries such as mechanical engineering are merging with completely new possibilities. This is resulting in completely new trade fair formats: cars at electronics congresses, LAN parties at industry trade fairs, cloud computing in home appliances.

Organisers are looking for new formats and offers, and providing forums and accompanying events. Congresses advertise with attractive host cities which provide an appropriate setting for the trade fair. From this, we can see that we have to think of the bigger picture. How do we support the strategy of an increasingly digital customer in a way that is both clear and attention-grabbing? How do we make new digital processes tangible and showcase their benefits through exciting experiences? And how exactly do we convince different target groups?

It is not enough here to give visitors a tablet – think, for example, of a football table that demonstrates malware and firewalls for network security in a lively and entertaining way. Our concepts must clearly focus on the buzzword “customer centricity” when it comes to digitalisation. Making the entire context of digitalisation visible and tangible as a clear benefit is what brings trade fair construction to a whole new level.

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Theory 2

The story is everything

For a long time, trade fairs used to be a staged presentation of exhibits. However, the future is all about telling individual stories with excellent presentation. This theory largely comes from the highlighted issue of digitalisation, which makes it necessary to make bigger, innovative contexts excitingly tangible. At the same time, however, it would be short-sighted to reduce storytelling to just that. After all, companies are quite rightly focusing their marketing more and more on homogeneous stories that can be scaled across all media and events.

Current – often international – campaigns, taglines and key visuals all have significantly more influence on the structure, architecture and design of the booth: the story determines the format. In such campaign-oriented communication, trade fairs are the cornerstone of the live experience. At this point, we can see that this live experience is taking on a very special significance today. In a world in which the communication landscape focuses strongly on digital possibilities, brands are seeing the opportunity to form real, close connections with potential buyers at trade fairs or events.

This leads to a desire for unique presentations which, put simply, can be described as “moving away from the presentation of technology toward the presentation of processes, through to the experience”. Here, LED walls are increasingly replacing projections and split-wall systems. As a result, media are becoming an integral part of the overall picture – the content is much more prominent than the technology. This creates exhibits that allow visitors to experience such bigger contexts in a vibrant way or even to be part of a story. This leads us on to the third theory.

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Theory 3

Interaction is the new presentation

Interaction at trade fair booth is a term that should not be confused with the basic service of creating a space for dialogue. In their most basic sense, trade fairs are meeting places that should motivate exhibitors and visitors to have a personal exchange. Interaction really means inviting the visitor to try something out, to participate, to actually experience or feel a benefit or a process, or explaining benefits in a fun way. And it’s all about the dosage.

It is not appropriate to reduce an international brand’s trade fair exhibit to a playground. The attraction of participation, of being “in the middle of the action, not just on the sidelines”, creates a specific space for understanding complex contexts. But it is just as important to create an individually designed, completely unique atmosphere that builds trust, inspires and, in the best case, creates a bond with the customer. This atmosphere can establish a competitive edge that is more decisive than nuances in terms of price or product performance. There is also another important aspect from our customers’ perspective: interaction is more measurable than simply counting visitors. Trade fairs will be increasingly measured by their performance in the future.

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Theory 4

Culture is more important than trend

The design of trade fair exhibits is, of course, influenced by trends and lifestyle: polygonal shapes in architecture and graphics, the combination of light woods and finishes for furniture and decoration, brass and copper colours and plenty of greenery. Trade fair exhibits are increasingly getting ideas from more accessible developments such as social media, and multiplying these for visitors.

However, as explained in the preceding theories, such “superficial” influences are more and more determined by content-related thinking. And at this point, cultural aspects also play an increasingly important role. An example of this, which is in turn derived directly from a new communication behaviour, is the fact that the appeal of epic product descriptions is approaching zero. If the whole world is driven by 160 Twitter characters or a picture-oriented Instagram world, it is important to see this as a cultural development and to think of new ways of implementing it in trade fair exhibits, in terms of both communication and space.

Another cultural aspect is the internationalisation of brands and customers, which is increasingly expanding from the very big players to medium-sized customers. Here, the influence of culture takes on a very unique significance which needs to be both understood and accepted in a very concentrated way. Compared to the previous Twitter example, there are areas of tension here that we have to solve. For example, the Japanese self-image is characterised by being rather cautious and preferring to read more than addressing a product manager. These are very clear-cut tasks that we address in a very individual way and, especially on an international level, give much more weight to than establishing trendy design.

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Theory 5

Sustainability is making good progress

Sustainability is a constant issue and, of course, an important aspect in concept and design. In the trade fair business, superficially this means reusable materials, modular design and avoiding anything that appears unnecessary.

At the same time, this is in contrast with the trend towards highly individualised architectures, short communication and campaign intervals and the demand for value and media presence. With the aid of advanced planning and production techniques (such as 3D printing), new materials, decentralised logistics concepts and widely used communication technologies, this contradiction can be overcome in perspective.

In the future, modular systems can thus be customised in small batches, media surfaces can be integrated seamlessly and take different formats, and components will no longer be shipped, but CNC-manufactured on site instead. This is an approach that already often works today. A special vantage point is needed here for exhibits. In the engineering industry, trade fair events mean enormous efforts in exhibit handling. Provision, transportation, construction and setting up, dismantling and refurbishing before sale are very time-consuming and expensive. Virtual exhibits, real-time simulations or other model-based intelligent representations of functions will be able to replace some large-scale physical exhibits in the future. In addition, these often work across different media and are easy to customise. Trade fairs as a format will then be able to focus even more on customers and communicating with them.

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