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exhibiting 101
What's in a Theme?
Don't fall prey to boring-booth syndrome. To help get your creative wheels turning, here's a rundown of some basic exhibit themes that left a lasting impression.
By Candy Adams
just returned from one of the largest shows in the United States. As usual, I was overwhelmed by the size of the show that not only filled up the Las Vegas Convention Center, but also spilled over to other facilities. However, I was underwhelmed by a majority of the exhibits. After scanning the first few hundred booths, it seemed most of the exhibitors wanted to look exactly like their competitors. It was tough to find exhibits with any semblance of a clear, memorable theme.

At most trade shows, exhibitors need to create a booth that stands out among a crowd of competitors and draws attendees' attention. They should make the experience memorable and unique so people can't resist coming in to learn more. And when the industry allows, exhibitors could stand to incorporate a little bit of fun.

I'm not saying you have to have Barnum and Bailey in your booth to draw attention to your company. But you do have to create an experience that differs from everything else on the show floor, and establishing a themed exhibit is a good option.

What's more, devising a clever theme that can be integrated into your entire exhibit-marketing program – e.g., pre-, at-, and post-show promotion, exhibit design, in-booth experiences, giveaways, staff attire, etc. – is relatively easy. All you need is a solid thematic concept, a bit of strategic thought, and some careful pre-show planning in order to execute a thematic campaign that will fit your marketing objectives. So to help spur your creativity, here are some of the most memorable exhibit themes I've seen on the trade show floor.

Arts and Culture
It's safe to say that most people have stepped foot inside an art museum at some point in their lives, making art-related themes a safe bet. This theme can be as simple as displaying your products as works of art (such as hanging them on exhibit walls under picture lights) or as complicated as recreating a gallery-like setting.

The best execution I've seen of this idea came from an exhibitor a few years ago. The company used elaborate wooden frames and spot lighting to highlight the products lining the exhibit's walls. Each of the framed products was numbered, and as attendees entered the booth, staffers gave them "visitors guides." The guides contained information that corresponded to the numbered products on the wall. What's more, the exhibit staff was formally dressed in black-tie garb, and roving waiters served hors d'oeuvres as attendees perused the "artwork."

If you like the idea of a humanities-inspired exhibit but the art theme doesn't jibe with your company's identity or its products/services, a history-based theme may fit the bill. This is especially true if the show is located in historically relevant cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, or New York. Prop houses in those cities typically have an abundance of historical items, from antique wooden furniture and Americana to quill pens. Some of my favorite history-themed exhibits have incorporated character actors or impersonators, such as Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison for an American-history theme. Character actors can typically be found via local talent agencies, but don't just hire them to stand in an exhibit all day. Have actors pose for photos with booth visitors in front of a branded backdrop, and then provide a link to the photos for easy sharing during and long after the show.

In addition to history and art, theaters are an excellent source for inspiration. One of my favorite exhibits featured an in-booth presentation area that had been turned into a full-fledged live-theater experience. There were several presentations planned throughout the day, so when attendees entered the theater, they received branded tickets with specific show times. Then, they queued up behind stanchions at the appropriate time and waited for the show to start. As attendees waited, staffers gave them popcorn and candy.

But the primary reason I liked this exhibit was the way staffers capitalized on the captive audience. While they handed out munchies, they also scanned badges and distributed audience-response systems to collect feedback during each presentation. So while the theme was fun, the exhibitor didn't lose sight of the reason it was at the trade show – to collect leads and gauge the reaction to its live presentation.

Location, Location, Location

Location-based themes are simple to pull together in a jiffy. One company created an outdoor camping environment by placing potted plants and trees atop its green booth carpet, and completed the look with a fire pit, wooden benches, and a tent. Take it to the next level and add plush stuffed animals such as raccoons, moose, and other woodland creatures. Then opt for jeans and camo T-shirts for your booth uniforms.
Branding is a key element of any theme you choose. So don't just pick a theme and run with it. Consider ways to integrate your key messages, product and company names, or benefit statements directly into the theme.

    I've also seen amazing city-themed exhibits. I usually tie the city theme to the show locale because it's easier to source local items. I've done Mardi Gras beads and jazz music for New Orleans, red carpet and gold stars for Hollywood, and playing cards and gambling-themed decorations for Las Vegas. What's more, attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Seattle Space Needle are all recognizable landmarks that can be incorporated into a theme. City themes are essentially foolproof, in that you're not creating some abstract idea and expecting attendees to get it. You're recreating a well-known place that will hopefully resonate with people.

For a theme that's a little more homey, head to a home-improvement store and pick up white plastic picket fencing and window boxes filled with flowers. Line your exhibit space with the fencing and place the window boxes near the entrance. Add a rocking chair or two and serve fresh-baked cookies to attendees (you can rent small ovens and buckets of frozen cookie dough from Otis Spunkmeyer). If the idea of baking in your booth causes your palms to sweat, consider using a scent machine and apple-pie scents to enhance that welcoming atmosphere. Or go modern and turn your exhibit into a home via stylized graphics of various rooms and minimal furnishings and décor. One of my high-tech clients recently created the living areas of a "connected home," showcasing its technology and products used to connect a home's audio, video, data, and security equipment.

Food for Thought

Food motivates people, especially at a trade show where good food can be hard to come by. So why not use some tasty vittles to draw hungry attendees to your exhibit? I always like a good sidewalk bistro, which is easy to recreate. All you need are two or three small, round tables with umbrellas, checkered tablecloths, and a coffee cart rented from the show caterer. To add a bit of marketing to the mix, print product information on table tents and place them on the tables, and order branded cardboard sleeves or coffee cups. If you have the budget, splurge for prepackaged biscotti with labels that have your company name or logo on them. Have your staffers hand them out to attendees while they wait for their coffee, and use the opportunity to relay key messages and chat about attendees' reasons for visiting the booth.

Assuming you have the space and budget for it, expand the bistro idea and create a full-scale diner. I've seen a number of 1950s diner-themed exhibits complete with laminated counters, chrome stools, and staffers dressed in decade-appropriate server uniforms and caps. These types of exhibits never cease to delight me, and they always draw a crowd. Of course, you can't have a diner without food. So work with the venue's official caterer to come up with a menu for the show, from bottles of Coca-Cola and ice cream sundaes to hot dogs. Instead of food menus, print product information and specs on menus and hand them out to attendees.

To some, the food theme is a tad been there, done that, which is why I was excited to see a new take at a recent show. A huge roach coach took the place of a typical exhibit. The odd vehicle and its colorful graphics provided the visual centerpiece for the booth space, and easily drew in curious attendees for a closer look. Those that took the time to check out the roach coach were rewarded with cupcakes and popcorn distributed through the truck's serving window. You could brand the truck with your company logo, key messages, and product name. I would kick it up a notch and hand out branded napkins with each treat, and add a picnic table or two for in-booth meetings.

In fact, branding is a key element of any theme you choose. So don't just pick a theme and run with it. Consider ways to integrate your key messages, product and company names, or benefit statements. And while these themes might seem like all fun and games, you still have to play by the exhibiting rules. Consult the show's exhibitor services manual for any restrictions regarding exhibitry, and make sure the materials you're using are fire retardant and approved by the venue's fire marshal.

Whether you completely revamp your exhibit program or keep it simple and add a few elements here and there to reinforce a theme, make sure the final product is clearly understood from the aisle, relates to your key message, and increases your message's memorability.E

Candy Adams, CTSM, CME, CEM, CMP, CMM,
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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