by Tom Isler | May 01, 2007

Sometimes it feels like nothing short of a little abracadabra could actually produce the perfect trade show. Balancing the conflicting interests of exhibitors, attendees and sponsors, what trade show manager would refuse a dash of magic if -- poof! -- a floor plan sketch suddenly appeared that would distribute traffic evenly, keep attendees engaged for hours on end and maximize revenue for the organizer, all at the same time?

When it comes to drawing up the ideal floor or the next innovations that will yield more effective trade shows, “we’re all sitting here with our crystal balls trying to figure it out,” says Pat Dwyer, senior manager of convention and trade show services for Chicago-based SmithBucklin, a trade show management company.

Martin Smith and Steve Miller are two trade show consultants who have long since ditched their crystal balls. And yet, they continue to inspire their clients to innovate.

Martin Smith

Consultant Martin Smith
of ethnoMETRICS says once
he even
changed the carpet color
on the show floor overnight
to see what effects it would have.

Smith, founder of ethnoMETRICS Corp., a Benton Harbor, Mich.-based company that analyzes retail and trade-show environments, and Miller, a self-described “strategic handyman” and founder of The Adventure, a consultancy that has worked with some of the biggest trade shows in the country, help their clients identify what to improve on a show floor and how to do it. Each takes a different approach, but both agree clues to more successful shows are already out there in plain view. The key to success is just knowing where to look.

Dispelling myths

Smith believes in hard data above all else. “Most shows I work with don’t know what’s helping them or hurting them,” he says. “It’s dangerous when you don’t measure anything.” Show managers typically keep track of the number of registered attendees and exhibitors at their shows, but, Smith notes, “you can’t manage to that.”

Smith says organizers who change the decoration and organization of trade shows in subtle ways from year to year simply to avoid stagnation are wasting opportunities to analyze exactly what works and what doesn’t. “They don’t consider it to be an experiment,” he says. “But it’s a huge experiment, and they just don’t realize it.”

Smith has been analyzing buying behavior and retail environments for eight years, and his client list includes giants such as Best Buy and Macy’s. In 2002, he started to turn his attention to trade shows. He began videotaping attendees and exhibitors, and he gathered raw data about attendee and exhibitor behavior, registration efficiency, lead generation and other facets of trade shows. Smith estimates he’s now collected information on 45 to 60 shows -- including International CES (the consumer electronics show), The Motivation Show, the National Restaurant Association Show and the American Dental Association Annual Session -- at 15 convention centers across the country.

To figure out what factors actually are driving certain behaviors, and thus, what can be manipulated to produce a more effective design, Smith conducts mini-experiments using a Six Sigma method that systematically tests variables in order to yield more precise results. He will alter, for instance, the color, size and placement of signage throughout the course of a show and observe resulting changes in attendee behavior, rather than wait to test out different signs at subsequent shows, when too many variables are uncontrolled: The show might feature different exhibitors, be held in different exhibit halls or even in entirely different cities. Smith says once he even changed the carpet color on the show floor overnight to see what effects it would have.

Smith’s findings have proven wrong some widely held -- or, at least, oft-spouted -- beliefs about trade shows.

“What we didn’t see,” Smith begins, “is 80 percent of people go to the right” when they enter the trade show. “We saw something more like 34 percent. Now, at certain convention centers or in certain areas, 80 percent may go right, but you can manipulate it.” Placing entrances, attractions, “anchor” exhibitors or other features at strategic places on the floor will alter how attendees flow throughout the space, he says.

Another myth is that the best booth location is front and center. “Fewer than 2 percent of people stop at the first booth,” Smith says. Front-and-center booths do enjoy high visibility, he allows, but exhibitors looking to engage with attendees are better off somewhere in the middle of the floor, where greater than 70 percent of attendees tend to stop to talk with them. Thus, the optimal location depends on the exhibitor’s goals.

A third myth is that seating areas on the floor discourage attendees from interacting with exhibitors or send them searching for a premature exit once they’ve had a chance to realize how tired they are.

“What we found was the opposite,” says David A. Weil, Chicago-based senior director of convention and trade show services for SmithBucklin, who worked with Smith to analyze the International Carwash Association’s Car Care World Expo in 2005. By adding seating and networking areas, organizers were able to extend the average length of stay on the show floor by an hour. And attendees didn’t just spend that hour sitting or networking -- they actually interacted with more exhibitors.

Smith’s research also confirms other hunches trade show managers hold but never before have had evidence to prove. For instance, once attendees leave the show floor, they tend not to return. During one show last year at McCormick Place in Chicago, Smith observed the entrance to the convention center and measured a spike of attendees leaving around lunchtime and never recorded those people returning. “Having a restaurant can be very critical to having people on the floor,” Smith concludes.

Having the restaurant in the right place is important, too. At the same show, when a restaurant was planted in the middle of the trade show floor, 71 percent of attendees who walked into the space took a look around and walked out without staying to eat. Yet, when the organizers moved the restaurant to a front corner, the number who left without eating fell to 51 percent. While Smith admits the level of food service is clearly a factor in keeping attendees in the building, he notes that pure setup and design issues also can have a major effect.

Further, at the Car Care World Expo, Weil and Smith measured the number of leads generated by exhibitors who displayed uniform “new product” icons, provided by the show’s organizers, on their booths. Those exhibitors generated 59 percent more leads than their non-icon-displaying peers. While this can be attributed to the fact that the exhibitors actually had new products to show and the others didn’t, Weil says surveys show the icons themselves contributed to a sense that the show featured new products, and that feeling closely correlated to overall satisfaction ratings for the event.

Smith has numbers and video footage to back up other conclusions:

* Latitudinal rows (which force attendees to turn right or left upon entering the hall) are better for balancing traffic than longitudinal rows (which would allow attendees to enter the hall and walk straight up one of the aisles).

* Very long aisles, without escape hatches or variation, tire out attendees.

* A stark contrast in carpet colors creates a “force-field effect” that discourages attendees from moving across the color change.

*  Exhibit booths encourage more traffic when they allow attendees to flow in from the aisles like an off-ramp on a highway, rather than those with small, fixed entrances at 90 degrees to the flow of traffic.