Once upon a time, in the words of tradeshow consultant Traci Browne, the typical event held in a convention center exhibition hall could be described as “a gigantic shopping mall.” As long as a convention center provided enough contiguous exhibit space to accommodate the number of booths required, it had fulfilled its purpose.

While the need for generous exhibit space is still a priority, Browne and others in the industry note that today’s shows have requirements that go far beyond it. Comfortable areas for casual networking, flexible breakout space, digital signage, green practices and, above all, plenty of bandwidth capability are also on the must-have list for many of today’s organizers.

“We’re entering a new era where significant investment in a quality customer experience is more important than simply building new space,” says Paul Woodward, managing director of UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry. “Many venue managers don’t expect to see huge expansion in the size of events, but they do see a significant increase in their complexity.”

Competitive Environment
For convention centers, keeping up with the evolving needs of their tradeshow customers is paramount, given the increasing competition for group business, according to Brian Casey, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. He notes that the availability of exhibition space in the U.S. has grown by 29 percent since 2004 while the number of events has remained about the same.

“Planners have a lot of choice these days, so there is intense pressure on second-tier and even first-tier cities to keep their infrastructure current or else lose business,” he says. “In particular, older facilities are challenged to update their technology, including providing complimentary Internet access. It’s an expensive prospect.”

Convention centers are also under increased pressure to deliver a high-quality customer experience, which encompasses everything from design aesthetics to clean bathrooms, according to Woodward.

“There is a much lower tolerance for bad food, security queues, lack of seating and so on,” he says. “Venue managers have to invest significantly in the customer experience at events if they are to continue to attract audiences.”