Exhibitions have always relied on the power of face-to-face meetings to generate new discoveries and relationships, so what will the future hold now for our sector, as we strive to adapt to life during and after the pandemic? Yes, visitors will continue to need to make real-time assessments of brands and businesses they can trust and be inspired by, which will ensure the survival and return of the physical format of exhibitions in the longer term. In the interim period, however, there’s no doubt a physical/virtual hybrid model will be more the norm.
What can be done to make exhibition stands work well in the interim era and be both safe for visitors, whilst giving brands choice and creative freedom? Pre-pandemic, the number of products and visitors that could be made to fit within a given space was the guiding commercial consideration, now replaced by the need for safe social distancing and the reassurance of visitors. The way that companies handle this transitional period will affect longer-term brand perceptions, so it’s important to do more than the minimum. To help with the task, we set our design studio the challenge of focusing on the near-future of the physical design format. Here’s their 4-pronged guide to making the very best of the new normal:
Smart stand layout
Event organisers are already widening main aisles and implementing one-way traffic. To capitalise on this with stand designs, angular layouts directly addressing pedestrian flow will be vital. To avoid congestion, stands should also implement one-way movements through their space, employing wayfinding graphics in the form of lines and floor markings. Wall and freestanding signage can also be used, though the accent should be very much on integrated and intuitive solutions rather than imperious commands. Careful attention to tone-of-voice will be paramount.
Transparent panels and wall segments will be abundantly-available for designers to use, offering high levels of visibility to reassure visitors, especially when moving around corners or across intersections. Last, but not least, stands will need to offer enough room for visitors to move safely within the exhibit, leaving potentially more cramped public spaces behind. Making sure your stand offers visitors not only a welcome, but a refuge, will only increase its attractiveness.
New materials to answer new demands
The materials you select for your stand design need to be anti-bacterial at least and preferably anti-viral. Materials with moisture-, bacteria- and mould-resistant finishes will help prevent the accumulation of pathogens and offer hospital-grade sanitation levels, as well as being easy to clean. Widely-used Polyrey, homogenous solid surfaces from Krion or antimicrobial surfaces from Silestone are good choices, for example, for unit design and oft-touched countertops. Where possible, copper fixtures should be used because of its antiviral properties. You can apply sheet copper materials to reception desks and unit tops and re-use them in future designs. If this doesn’t appeal, materials which have copper compound nanoparticles infused into them are also a great choice. Products such as Cufitec can be blended into synthetic plastics, film or fibre mix and the specific benefit of these are that tests show they can kill up to 99.99% viruses in as little as five minutes. Incorporating virus- and bacteria-control technology into surfaces will not compromise good looks, whilst natural materials will also minimise dust and allergens and contribute to a feeling of human-centered design.
When it comes to fabrics, consider using antimicrobial flax or hemp fibre. They are durable, easy to clean and a great addition to sustainable and re-usable stock. These materials produce zero waste and require no irrigation or GMOs during production. For the same reasons, instead of carpets, choose cork flooring. With social distancing in mind, cork will also work wonders in terms of insulating sound and will ensure comfortable acoustics in an open meeting space.
Materials shown include: Durable hemp fibre textile (John England), recycled felt fabric (I-Did), sanitized grade wood effect laminate board (Polyrey), antimicrobial marble effect worktop (Silestone), antiviral copper sheets (Tecu), textured and tinted glass (Pilkington), antimicrobial cork flooring (Haro), hygienic solid surface (Krion).
Furniture and spatial hierarchy
Large meetings in an enclosed spaces will no longer be possible and there will be a rise in the use of semi-private meeting areas for smaller numbers of people. To make the most of this, screens and dividers should be used. Seating will need to be positioned at 2m distances, allowing for larger furniture pieces to fill the space and aid private conversations as visitors will feel more comfortable and natural talking from eg the ends of two longer sofas than if the space was too dispersed. Soft furnishings should be washable too so choose fabrics with good durability ratings.
Contrary to expectation, interactive areas don’t need to disappear completely and we shouldn’t fear the use of touch technology. iPads, touchscreens, models and products can be treated with antiviral surface coatings, preventing the spread of Coronavirus through touch. Promising Nanova Hygiene+ TM technology is awaiting release, while MAP-1 coating that protects surfaces from viruses for up to 90 days is already being used in Hong Kong. However, touchless interaction should of course be considered as well, as not everyone will feel comfortable using a touch screen, even with clear reassurances, making gesture technology a good option. Airports are already testing check-in kiosks with sign detection and this could be the future for trade show stands too. QR codes should also be used in interactive zones instead of brochures. Accessing content through phones is not only convenient, but the information is stored in the device and can be accessed by visitors at any time in the future.
The adaptation of current materials and technology to adhere to new strict anti-viral regulations will no doubt mean a higher cost. The answer here should also be a longer-term and more sustainable strategy. Choose long-lasting products with the aim of reuse, for example and consider modular systems as part of your stock and move towards a sustainable business approach.
Finally, communication will be incredibly important. In order to increase attendance rates and attract visitors to your stand, it will be imperative to make clear you have taken all the necessary steps to ensure visitor protection. Make your initiatives visible and easily legible and let visitors know they are safe to journey through your stand and can interact with displays and make connections in complete security.