The second part of our guide looks at scope, dependencies and hardware systems when presenting an exhibition stand brief to a supplier.

Exhibition beginner’s guide: introduction

The beginner’s guide is a series of articles specifically for exhibition virgins. Its aim is to help people avoid common mistakes and to understand the basic principles of exhibiting at a trade show for the first time.

In the first article, we talked about the preparation required for an exhibition project before approaching a supplier like Rounded Edge Studio. If you haven’t done so already, please take the time to read part 1 first. We mentioned that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to exhibiting; there are also no shortcuts.

In this second article, we’re going to look more at the exhibition stand itself; issues concerning the scope of the project, the exhibition products (hardware systems) available and exhibition stand design in quite a broad sense. These are the conversations that form an initial brief for your exhibition supplier, along with the desired outcomes discussed in part 1.

Taking a stand

So you’ve done your research. You’ve attended exhibitions with notepad and camera in hand. You’ve looked at what worked and didn’t work at different types of show, different locations within a hall, different engagement activities, different staffing levels. You’ve spoken to friends, competitors and organisers for their insights.

And you’ve tried really hard to envision how all this relates to the context of your business, your industry, your marketing initiative.

For your very first exhibition show, now is the time to copy, pilfer and plagiarise all the ideas you saw other people implementing successfully. You could call this taking a stand, but more accurately, it’s cherry-picking elements you liked from lots of other stands. Think of it as a homage to your influences, if that makes you feel better.

We’re not saying you couldn’t come up with something from scratch. You might have an incredibly creative team on board. You might have an unlimited budget. But it’s more likely that you would benefit from leaning on the experience of others for your first show.

Neither are we suggesting you aim for mediocrity; just that reinventing the wheel could be deferred until after you’ve had a chance to assess the existing wheel. We’re not even asking you to subdue your creativity because you still need to adapt everything to your own personal context.

Briefing an exhibition supplier

Here’s a perfect opportunity for a sales pitch. Here’s a chance to tell you what to do, how much to spend, which exhibition system to invest in. Here’s a section about how fabulous we are.

Or, alternatively, we could do something much more useful; listen to you.

An exhibition supplier will have years of experience in providing exhibition solutions. So as you begin to tell them the story of your exhibition stand, your context, your marketing initiative, the supplier should be quickly on the same page about the scope of the project.

It is not in their remit to trample on your vision; they are not your marketing department. Remember that you’re the expert, and you’ve already done your research. It’s your business risk. If your research tells you to be quirky or absurdist, it’s your prerogative to turn that into a whacky exhibition event.

However, a supplier should feel able to influence scope and ambition. Maybe your vision relies on an unrealistic budget, turnaround time or build window. Maybe you could be more ambitious within your budget. Either way, that’s a conversation that needs to be had sooner rather than later.

The supplier knowing something of the industry in which you operate is useful, but not essential. The same can be said about the products or services you wish to promote. If they have their ears on, their general experience with branding should allow them to pick up on the buzz and excitement around your marketing initiative. A good supplier can really get under the skin of the project’s aims; your desired outcomes.

So an initial brief ought to be, must be, a two-way conversation. A supplier who doesn’t listen to your requirements and desired outcomes doesn’t deserve to do business with you. And if you can’t exploit their experience and absorb their advice, then you could end up no nearer a practical exhibition solution.

The rest of this part of the exhibition beginner’s guide is dedicated to covering the scope of your initial briefing meeting. What aspects of exhibition stand design might you actually discuss? And how might changing one thing affect everything else?

Exhibition stand design: initial scope

Designing an exhibition stand takes us back to the land of variables, where we must remind you that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Exhibition stand design draws on the requirements of your brief, then looks at a wide array of dependencies to start homing in on solutions.

We call them ‘dependencies’ because changing one affects some or all of the others. So the more accurate your brief, the more of these dependencies enter the discussion within known parameters.

In the first part of the exhibition beginner’s guide, we did not ask about budget as a context question, although we offered some guidance on budget nonetheless. Whilst we know it’s often at the forefront of people’s minds during discussions of scope and stand design, we will again refrain from suggesting absolute costs here. There are simply too many variables.

This part of the process is about working through options, understanding the dependencies and making some decisions that allow your exhibition supplier to guide you to workable, credible solutions. It’s essentially a scoping exercise.

Maybe think about your ‘red lines’; what aspects of the project are vital in achieving your desired outcomes, so are inflexible? For example, if you absolutely must have the most prestigious stand space in the hall, discussions about stand size and shape are pointless because they will be dictated by the organiser.

Please be cautious with the use of red lines though. They can make it difficult or even impossible to reach a solution. Think Theresa May. Think Brexit. The horror… the horror…

Exhibition stand design: dependencies

1. DIY

Some of our new clients come to us already certain that they want a ‘DIY display’ or ‘self-build’ option, which has a huge impact on exhibition stand design, especially its size and hardware system. Others are certain that they want us to do everything for them. Decisiveness can sometimes make things easier. Sometimes not.

2. Logistics

Deciding to have a large exhibition stand essentially commits you to needing a dedicated team for logistics, installation and break down of the event equipment, ruling out the ‘DIY display’ option. If you have many shows to do in a season (like our university clients), outsourcing logistics is a vital part of making the 40th stand look just as good as the first one.

3. Re-usability

Tied to your decisions about whether to go the self-build route and which hardware system to use will be an assessment of the investment you are making. Is this exhibition equipment to be single-use, or do you plan to use it at multiple events? We’ve encountered people making this decision based on their accountant’s requirements for exhibition equipment to be treated either as assets or expenses.

4. Build windows

If the organisers of an event only allow 2 hours to build your exhibition stand, that severely limits what is possible, and would certainly point towards a much smaller stand. You may still need to use an install team for a smaller stand if the build window is very tight. If, however, you have 3 days to build your stand, it’s a good indication that you’d be expected to build something slightly more spectacular, since many of your competitors will be. Either way, finding out the build window after the stand has been designed and the hardware ordered could be a disaster.

5. Internal space

This dependency is a design consideration which you might think of as space and flow within an exhibition stand. How do you wish people to be able to move around the stand? Is there a need for a presentation area or secluded private meeting areas? How much space do your engagement activities require?

6. Exhibition stand shape

Very much linked with exhibition stand size, but it’s not the same thing. An 8x2m stand and a 4x4m one share the same floor size by area, but are very different in what you can use them for. Then there are asymmetrical and just plain weird exhibition stand shapes caused by event organisers trying to squeeze as many stands into a hall as possible. The kite-shaped stand shown in this feature image is a good example. Your research has hopefully given you a sense of the ideal shape for your stand.

7. Exhibition stand size

There is no doubt that a different approach to stand design is both facilitated and necessitated by changing the exhibition stand size. Some hardware systems suit a larger space. Some engagement activities are impossible in a small space. Knowing the required ‘internal space’ gives you a minimum required stand size. Size sometimes dictates hall position; hall position always dictates size.

8. Openness

This relates specifically to entrances to and exits from the stand. A stand open on all sides is clearly going to encourage different interactions to an enclosed one with a single entrance. It affects flow, approachability, privacy and overall visibility. Taking a hall position in an enclosed shell scheme takes the choice away completely. A position against the hall’s back wall is also limiting. If openness is important, the hall position needs to be central like TUI’s island stand shown here. Don’t forget to consider disabled access too.

9. Hall position

Image credit:

The location of your stand within an exhibition hall usually dictates its size, shape, openness and visibility. But it also affects the number of visitors or ‘footfall’ you can expect, which can impact your show’s success. Prestigious positions therefore demand a larger budget as with any other rent scheme. It can sometimes be a good thing to be positioned near competitors; that’s why shoe shops cluster together on the high street. In truth, clients have almost always booked their hall position before they approach us because this has to be done so far in advance.

10. Brand perception

This depends on your goals for the event, but if your goals include enhanced market positioning or brand awareness, then your exhibition stand design needs to take greater account of competitors’ stand designs and activities. You might need to differentiate, for example, or at least aim to be perceived as equally professional. It’s about keeping up with the Joneses or one-upmanship.

11. Prestige

Connected with hall position, but also inextricably linked with brand perception, prestige is often an annoying and unwanted budgetary consideration. Essentially, if your neighbour in the hall is an Amazon or a Nike, you might consider either a) upping your game considerably or b) choosing a different location. Equally, if you’re the best-known brand in the hall (or maybe the event organiser), you should probably command a prestigious location.

12. Aesthetics

Get this wrong and you won’t attract footfall. Brand perception and prestige won’t be aided by poor aesthetics either. And if the marketing initiative you’re presenting has any design element whatsoever, the stakes are even higher. Since aesthetics are subjective, this is a fairly high-risk area. Get it right, however, and you can quickly grab and hold the attention of passers-by. We’re amazed by how many marketers roll the dice by trying to create graphics themselves. We advise that use of graphic designers is a good idea for graphic design.

13. Message

Aesthetics may tick all your boxes for brand perception and prestige, but the designers have another important job to do. People passing the stand have to very quickly be able to determine what your marketing initiative is. The engagement activity might be doing this for you if anyone’s currently engaging with it. But irrespective of that, your stand design’s message only has a couple of seconds to grab the attention of passers-by. Give people a compelling reason to engage.

14. Functionality

In other words, what will the stand do and how? What will people be able to achieve during their visit to the stand? Engagement is not everything, but in terms of achieving your desired outcomes, it will heavily influence the design of the stand. The example image shows how Acteon recently created a product demonstration and interaction area. This clearly links to internal space, exhibition stand space and shape, but also aesthetics, hardware systems and accessories.

15. Lighting

We’ve offered lighting its own paragraph here because its importance should not be understated. Get this wrong and in many dim exhibition halls your engagement activities or meeting points will be too dark to be functional. Plus, your aesthetics or branding messages won’t be properly highlighted, which could mean disappointing visitor numbers. Aside from functional down-lighters, lit elements can constitute highly attractive integral parts of your design. They could be an entire wall panel, a feature logo, a light tower or a beacon. Skimping on the lighting could let down a wonderful stand design, especially if your neighbour or competitor hasn’t skimped.

16. Electrics and internet

It may seem obvious, but no electrics = no lighting or TV screens or electrical product demonstration. No internet = limited engagement / data collection possibilities. So they’re both fairly essential items in a modern exhibition stand. Event organisers may not give you a choice where your electric and internet sockets emerge from the floor. Hiding cables safely needs to form part of your stand design.

17. Storage

There will be items your staff need access to during an exhibition event. This might be hardware, spare handouts, a competition prize or just some refreshments. It might need a door. It might need to be lockable. Some hardware systems allow in-built storage. Others would require it as an extra. Forgetting storage means either a messy exhibition stand or lots of trips to the car park. In the example image, GSK used a counter as a meet & greet desk with interactive iPad points, but it also doubled-up as a neat storage area for their boxes of handouts.

18. Accessories

By accessories, we mean extra bits of hardware like counters, chairs, tables and literature racks. Closely linked with hardware systems; these are often important functional extras. They facilitate your exhibition activities, guide flow around the stand, offer hidden storage.

19. Staffing

The number of staff required to run your exhibition stand will depend on many context variables. For example, how expert do your client-facing advisors need to be? Do the people running the engagement activities need expertise or just enthusiasm? How many visitors do you anticipate and how long will your staff spend with each one? The stand size and design will determine if they have suitable spaces for their activities. Overstaffing can appear intimidating. Understaffing can mean missed lead opportunities. And remember that staff are human; they will need breaks.

20. Exhibition products or ‘hardware systems’

We’ve left this dependency until last on purpose because your choice of hardware system affects and is affected by everything else. It determines how quickly a stand can be installed and broken down, and how many people will be required to do so. It dictates a stand’s re-usability, as well as its storage and logistics requirements. It presents the design, its aesthetics and its message. It determines whether or not the stand suits the space. Exhibition products deserve their own section, really.

Exhibition products get their own section – yay

If you just ploughed through all the 20 dependencies we identified above in exhibition stand design, you’d know that exhibition products are linked to everything else. If we could be bothered to draw an inter-dependency diagram, these hardware systems would be the hub at the centre of a 19-spoked wheel, or maybe the bulbous body of a ridiculous 19-legged spider.

Some clients come to us knowing which exhibition products they want to use. Others want to be advised as part of the process of choosing a supplier. Others change their mind when discussing exhibition stand design or budget or feasibility. Some have already invested in a hardware system, so are looking to extend their investment in that system or just update some graphics. Some have had a bad experience with DIY and are looking for logistical support.

The easiest way to describe the available hardware systems is by product type. Some of this is shamelessly plagiarised from our own Exhibition Products pages:

Roller banners

Roller banners are graphic panels housed (and protected in transport) on a spool inside a cassette. The spool is usually spring-wound under tension so that the graphic can easily be retracted back into the cassette after use. They are renowned for their ease-of-use and portability, allowing you to set up a basic promotional or information backdrop in seconds. Perfect for DIY displays and multiple events.

Portable displays

Portable display systems use linking graphic panels to create an easy-to-erect back-wall for your exhibition stand. Like roller banners, they are ideal for DIY displays and multiple events, being light and easy to transport. Also like roller banners, the graphic panels form the vast majority of what you can see, so quality of design and print are paramount.

Modular displays

Modular display systems use structural elements to create more complex 3D stands suited to medium or even large exhibition spaces. They usually comprise pre-configured elements that join together to form a larger structure. Personalisation is added using printed graphic panels or fabric. Hardware is often rented and used at multiple events, so as a large investment, a commitment is usually made to one system or another.

Aluminium Profile system

We are on the verge of launching an exciting new exhibition product that sits between modular displays and custom builds. It can produce a wide variety of bespoke structures, but the aluminium framework can be either bought or rented. The framework is ‘skinned’ using lightweight magnetised printed boards. So this provides a great value option for larger stands. It’s also quick to build, enabling custom-build-type stands when the build window would normally be prohibitively narrow. There are alternatives on the market, notably beMatrix, but we think its cost is eye-watering.

Custom build

Custom build exhibition stands are unique, using bespoke elements to elevate them yet further above modular displays. In reality, they aren’t always completely bespoke; they sometimes use modular elements for their structural core, or take embellishment from standard accessories, for example. It really depends on how unique the client needs it to be. Creating custom build structures requires an engineer and a workshop, which is why it’s a service few can provide.

Exhibition products and suppliers: a caution regarding choice

We recently wrote an article about the benefits of exhibition supplier partnership. Now would be a useful time to read that.

The choice of exhibition products matters to us greatly because at Rounded Edge Studio, we’re not just about exhibition stand design and installation. We also design and manufacture the majority of the exhibition products we sell and rent.

Again, this is the perfect opportunity for a sales pitch, which is not the intention of this article. The important thing to note, however, is that the reason we develop new exhibition equipment is to inject choice into a stagnant market. And the reason we partner with other manufacturers is to offer the broadest possible choice. So for us, it’s a choice thing.

Ultimately, not limiting our choice of hardware system when we discuss your brief with you means that the range of potential solutions is also unlimited. Any good exhibition supplier should be able to do something similar. The alternative would be to push you towards a system that doesn’t perfectly fit your needs, so is less likely to achieve your event’s desired outcomes.

We think you should be slightly wary of suppliers who publish their prices. Initially, you might find this useful, especially if you’re an exhibition virgin. But it is actually a symbol of inflexibility. Any price-driven business is primarily interested in margin, which means achieving economies of scale by limiting choice. It means using a template, following a script, fearing improvisation.

Flexibility might be possible (i.e. diverging from the template), but at an ever-increasing cost. And watch out for add-ons for things you might have expected to be included, like output of your large format print or amended CADs or transportation of your literature. So the price of uniqueness from these suppliers can end up being very high if you’re not careful.

Don’t forget that the price publishers are all trying to undercut each other, which we and our partners in the DISQ group recognise has led to a ‘race to the bottom’, in which corners are cut and quality is sacrificed. It has created an unsustainable business model in which good service cannot thrive. Funnily enough, the DISQ group’s resistance to this model is called ‘Taking a stand’, just like our suggestion that you rip off everyone else’s ideas. Vive la révolution!

Experienced exhibitors know that things don’t always go to plan. With so many resources and processes in a project culminating in a single event, it’s likely for some part of the plan to need flexibility at some point. A marketing rethink. An artwork amendment after sign-off. A panel reprint (which needs to be colour-matched to the others). An errant courier. A traffic jam. A missing pallet. A transformer on the blink. An absent electrician. A lack of biscuits. These are just a few of the moments you’ll be glad you chose service.

We urge you to consider finding an exhibition supplier for whom quality and service are paramount. You may pay a little more (although we would argue the price of getting things right first time is often less). For your first exhibition, we want you to have as positive an experience as possible. We want you to catch the bug, to fall in love with exhibiting so that it becomes a regular and vital part of your annual marketing activity.

Exhibition beginner’s guide part 2: summary

  • Gather your research.
  • Cherry-pick the best elements you’ve seen in other exhibition stands.
  • Start to compile an initial brief for a supplier including your desired outcomes.
  • Consider in scoping your stand how inter-dependencies exist between options.
  • You’ve probably chosen a venue and event already (because hall space needs to be booked in advance). What impact does this have on the other dependencies?
  • Pay special attention to exhibition products (hardware systems).
  • Find an exhibition supplier for whom quality and service are key.
  • Brief them with your requirements and collaborate on narrowing down your options.

Coming up…

In the next article in the exhibition beginner’s guide series, we’ll be looking deeper into exhibition stand design: the transition from options to decisions, from brief to CAD and ultimately from vision to solution.

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Exhibition beginner's guide series

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