by Tom Isler | May 01, 2007

Alien encounters

In Miller’s experience, the best place to look for inspiration is anywhere that has nothing directly to do with the problem you’re trying to solve. That’s why he has formed a “club” for about 15 clients who organize trade shows. Three times a year, he plans trips to various cities to expose the group to what he calls “alien experiences,” examples of attractions or businesses that are doing innovative things that could be applied to trade shows. These experiences have ranged from observing major Las Vegas hotels, to see how they process thousands of people in short amounts of time, to visiting a bustling FedEx hub in the middle of the night.

One stop on a recent club outing was the American Girl Place in Chicago, which is a doll store, but “the fact is that they’ve turned a doll store into a very real experience,” Miller says. When he asked an American Girl executive to describe the experience in one sentence, the executive told Miller, “We put vitamins in the cake.”

“I like that,” Miller continues. “I think it’s a great concept. It’s fun for the kid but of value to the parent. That’s what we want to do when creating trade shows.”

Michelle Sanford, director of exhibitions operations for Milwaukee-based Association of Equipment Manufacturers, says American Girl Place taught her that although her trade show, CONEXPO-CON/AGG, is primarily a marketplace, there were other amenities she could add to improve the overall experience. Whereas the doll store has a restaurant geared for mothers and their daughters, the trade show could have VIP lounges and restaurants to enhance networking. Whereas the doll store features short, entertaining theatrical plays, CONEXPO could package demonstrations and seminars in a more dramatic fashion.

Studying the options

Stuart Aizenberg, director of trade shows and allied membership for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, based in Chicago, is one of the regular instructors for the course on floor plans and layouts offered by the International Association of Exhibits and Events as part of the CEM (Certified in Event Management) program. He teaches that “the tradition of straight aisles, uninterrupted as much as possible, is still a very good model for a very good layout.”

Aizenberg notes that the CEM course is open to trade show professionals regardless of whether they’re pursuing their CEM, and that it can be a valuable way to spend a day. IAEE’s discussion groups or executive roundtables, other trade shows, focus groups and outside innovative businesses are all good resources for organizers looking to learn from others how they can improve their trade shows.

There’s nothing magical about it. The innovators are the ones who realize the simplest ideas are usually the best, and, quite often, those ideas already are staring them in the face.