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.”
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.”
Despite the expense, many venues are making the investment in significant upgrades. Among them is the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia, Pa., where a comprehensive renovation that includes everything from new air walls to updated technology and signage is in progress. According to President and CEO Mike Bowman, the project was determined by feedback from meeting planners.
“We’re competing with a lot of other facilities, and we know we have to provide the latest in convention center technology,” he says. “Planners also told us that they want simplicity, including good directional signage and air walls that make spaces more flexible.”
The San Jose McEnery Convention Center, in California, where a $130 million expansion and renovation debuted in October, has adapted to meet increasing demand for more networking areas, places for attendees to plug in their mobile devices, outdoor event space, better signage and more breakout rooms, according to Meghan Horrigan, spokeswoman for Team San Jose, which manages the facility.
“Planners had been asking for more breakout space, so our lower level is devoted to flexible meeting space that can serve small exhibitions as well as a wide range of breakout sessions, from small to mid-size,” she says. “It’s great for groups who need exhibit space but don’t want an entire hall. It also addresses trends for additional educational needs.”
New networking spaces at the center include The Hub, which has lounge furnishings, plug-in outlets and big-screen TVs showing news pertaining to the event and the destination.
“We even designed the lobby, so it’s not only more welcoming to visitors, but has places for attendees to sit, relax and network,” Horrigan says.
When convention centers make the shift toward more flexible breakout spaces and networking areas, they are recognizing important trends in what attendees want from the tradeshow experience, says Traci Browne, president of Red Cedar Publicity and Marketing.
“Flexible space has become more important because the educational element at shows has become more important,” she says. “When the Vancouver Convention Center expanded, they added a lot of rooms that can easily be broken down into smaller areas for breakout sessions when needed. Planners no longer have to go to the expense of renting a ballroom to get this kind of flexibility.”
Browne also sees more convention centers adding prefunction space and areas where attendees can gather for conversation.
“Event organizers are hearing from attendees that they want more networking time, but that doesn’t mean they want another big party,” she says. “It means they want to talk with their peers. Conversation pods are a great thing for convention centers to have.”
As technology needs grow more complex, Browne notes that an increasing number of convention centers, among them the Minneapolis Convention Center and Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center, have added built-in features such as giant LED screens and digital signage.
“Digital signs are not only environmentally friendly and a cost savings for planners, but they can be a nice revenue source,” she says. “A sponsor can create a 30-second video that runs all day—it’s much more effective than just displaying a logo.”
For planners, perhaps the most important and trickiest issue to negotiate with a convention center is bandwidth, according to Browne. To determine how much is really required, she recommends consulting with an IT expert and also checking data on how much was used during the last event.
“A convention center may advertise that it provides free Wi-Fi, but that doesn’t mean it applies to everything,” she cautions. “People may be able to check their e-mail, but you may not be able to do things like on-site event polling. You really need to understand how much bandwidth you need and get that ironed out during negotiation.”
As green awareness gains momentum, more convention centers, following the lead of such facilities as Portland, Ore.’s Oregon Convention Center and Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center, are making structural and operational changes to gain LEED certification. While not usually their top concern, a growing number of planners and show organizers are taking sustainability into account when choose a venue, according to trade show consultant Barry Siskind, president of International Training Management and author of Powerful Exhibit Marketing.
“Convention facilities are leading the way in sustainability, with even some of the older facilities going for certification,” he says. “A lot of corporations have strong environmental policies, so this is coming through in their exhibit programs. And show managers are becoming more conscious of green initiatives in their planning.”
While he believes technology to be a more important issue for show organizers than sustainability when selecting a venue, Casey notes that technological upgrades such as digital signage are often environmentally friendly.
“Technology and sustainability can go hand-in-hand,” he says. “And we see a lot of facilities making strides in both areas.”
Maria Lenhart is a frequent contributor to Meetings Focus and has covered industry topics ranging from technology and budget tips to SMERF events.