How Southern Expos Are Becoming Trendy & Fun

GameStop Expos include costumes and gamification.

By Adrianne Bowen

The digital age has touched every business, including the large-events market. But that’s not the only thing that has transformed the trade show experience and what attendees can expect. Even though the most important factor is always going to be showcasing the services and products of the vendors, an element of fun has become a key part of today’s trade shows and expo events, revealing how interactive games and adventures can make events truly come alive for attendees, no matter what the business focus. Allowing people to become part of the show and upping the ante in other ways is driving people to flock to these Southern shows and expos.

Impact of Innovative Technology

“If I had to say one thing about how trade shows and expo events are changing with innovative technology, it would be that everyone has an app,” said Van Silliman, destination sales executive for The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center. “Attendees can register, sign up for educational sessions, get real-time announcements about the show and even ask questions.”

Fun, interactive technological elements are becoming increasingly mainstream for trade shows and expo events, with attendees expecting digital flair at events. “I recently saw an iPad Robot that was being controlled by an associate out of the group’s home office in Canada. You could talk to it, ask questions, get directions,” said Silliman. “It was a good information source as well as an interesting novelty item.”

Ava Pope, director of sales for the Greensboro Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees that technology is the number one element that’s transforming trade and expo shows. “A lot of trade shows/booths have a huge digital component and interactive element to attract attendees,” she said.

“Everyone’s on their smartphones with lots of interactive apps,” said Patty Kieffer, CASE, national sales manager for Visit Mobile. Because of that, “everything is more up to date: room changes, pick-up locations. Attendees are more engaged in sessions, too. They can send a question to the moderator and that person can engage with the audience. It allows for instant reactions.”

New Forms of Networking

It’s not just technology that plays a role in the transformation of trade shows and expos. Other emerging trends are “networking pre- and post-show and huge giveaways such as trips and one-year leases on cars,” Pope said.

“We’re seeing a couple of trends to watch in the retail industry,” said Judy Payne, director of meetings and travel for Grapevine, Texas-based GameStop, a leader in the gaming retail industry. “The first: we have a growing number of vendors that are merging which means less exhibitors for us. We’re looking for new vendors to properly fill these gaps to keep our show floor growing year after year. The second trend is some vendors are trying to reduce overall costs. This means creating new options for these vendors that have ample exposure but reduce their overall spending at the event. Creativity is essential for a successful meeting planner!”

Mobile Boat Show’s Regional Guide Corners

At the Mobile Boat Show, gone are the days of traditional seminars in which the audience remains quiet, listening to a speaker at the front of the room. Attendees are now treated to a much more interactive way of experts sharing information. “We tried to have traditional seminars for years with one man at the mic but attention spans are short and no one wanted to sit down and listen for that length of time. People can also be intimidated to raise their hands and ask questions in front of a large group,” said Melissa Miller, event organizer for the Mobile Boat Show, presented by Mobile-based Gulf Coast Shows. “We have done something that’s really been great. Now we have regional guide corners where an expert is ready to share their passion and anyone can come up who wants to ask a question. We’ve had a really positive response from doing it this way. It’s a lot more personal and fun.”

Appointment-based trade shows have been happening for a while, according to Kieffer, but they are gaining momentum. “They are ideal for suppliers and give that one-on-one interaction. Lots of suppliers now have over-the-top social events, making it experiential for that destination. I love going into big spaces and seeing how they are showcasing the destination through the sights, smells and tastes of the city,” she said.

Contests and anime are popular trade show features for millennials.


The Right Show Space

When it comes time to find the right venue, Payne emphasized that exhibition organizers want space that will create an animated, expressive atmosphere for attendees. “Of course, there is the standard answer of ample space, great Wi-Fi and an excellent location, but it’s more than that,” she said. “We need a partner who understands our needs and will join us to brainstorm inventive solutions, as each of our vendors has a different objective. Our goal is to find the right solution to showcase their products.” 

And it’s so important to work with destination officials so you can, together, create the perfect show experience. “I’m most excited about our upcoming 2019 GME Conference which will be held at Music City Center in Nashville,” said Payne. “I’ve been working with Nashville on the details and I’m already excited about the commitment from our partners. The convention center and CVB have been helpful, coming up with creative solutions for our attendees. Our event hosts 5,000 millennials, 2,000 vendors and another 4,000 gaming enthusiasts who expect excitement, gamification and engagement. From housing to meals and on to events, we’re creating a fun, engaging approach to our event,” she said.

Woodlands, Texas, hosts thrilling trade shows and expo events with an emphasis on technology, according to Silliman. “First and foremost, our 70,000 square feet of flexible meeting space makes us stand out among venues,” said Silliman. “Secondly, our event technology and event management teams do an amazing job working with our guests to address and personalize their technology needs and experiences through the use of our meeting planners app. We have the perfect venue for our expo attendees, as everything in The Woodlands is high-end, walkable and extremely safe. No need to provide transportation to restaurants, shopping and nightlife.” 

Walkability plays a big part in today’s trade shows and expo events. People want more out of the destination than just the show. “Our Town Center is home to The Woodlands Mall, Market Street, The Woodlands Waterway and The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion,” said Alie Broussard, convention development manager for The Woodlands CVB. “Attendees are able to travel by foot to discover the luxury shops at Market Street, including Tiffany & Co., Marmi, Suit Supply and J. Crew, just to name a few. If the trade show or expo happens to fall over a concert or symphony show, The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion is only a few steps from The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center.”

Ideally located venues make Mobile a top choice for trade shows and expo events, Kieffer said. “Downtown is so walkable,” she explained. “It’s a great little tight package with the convention center and other large meeting space, and three blocks of new and renovated hotel rooms.” The waterfront Mardi Gras Park will open up green space and provide another place for hosting trade shows, Kieffer added, with statues of Mardi Gras kings and queens, and jazz legends dotting the park. “We will add a pavilion and an open market similar to the French Market in New Orleans.”

As today’s current market moves toward instant access and mobility, it’s important to have easy access to the venue space. “Greensboro is the ideal location for hosting any type of show or expo. We are in the center of it all, five hours from D.C. and five hours from Atlanta. Our airport [Piedmont Triad International Airport] is located 10 minutess from our downtown and major interstates all meet up in Greensboro,” said Pope.