Trade Shows Go High-Tech: Digital and lighting trends are changing the way we power events

By Claire Swedberg | Feb 15, 2024
In-person trade shows are back, and the ways that companies market themselves and hope to draw interest are changing. 

In-person trade shows are back, and the ways that companies market themselves and hope to draw interest are changing. Today’s technology affects conference centers and exhibit halls’ power and connectivity requirements, which must provide the backbone for a growing flow of digital content and LED experiences.

While each trade show booth is unique, they all face common challenges. For companies that install exhibits or set up booths that need to make an impression in a few days, there is an ever wider range of ways to do so, in part with help from new designs and technology. 

For contractors and integrators, that also means addressing new power and connectivity requirements.

Today’s booths are generally modular. The frames are often made of aluminum extrusion systems that are lightweight, easy to assemble, and can be reused in different configurations. Modularity means more changes from one exhibit to another. 

“You can have a whole new look with just some reprinted fabric graphics. That’s pretty attractive for keeping budgets in check,” said Niki Bartelt, principal and co-founder of trade show consultancy firm Exhibiteur, Oshkosh, Wis. “With more architecturally inspired design features, exhibitors benefit from a booth space that feels as if you are stepping into the interior of a nice restaurant or coffee shop.” 

The booths offer an elevated look and experience with louvers and green spaces, as well as accent lighting.

LED experiences on the rise

Today, Bartelt said, “You just can’t count on ambient light in the exhibit hall to do the work for you if you want to stand out.” 

For that reason, high-spending exhibitors hire teams of lighting experts to ensure every inch of the booth is lit to grab attendees’ attention. Light boxes and LEDs, for example, make content pop—especially when compared to booths with subpar lighting.

LED walls and lighting have been the fastest growing trend in the exhibit world among their clients, according to Paul Fletcher, chief operating officer of audiovisual and event technology for Freeman, a trade show, exhibit and event company based in Dallas. 

“[LEDs] are simply cool to look at and instantly grab the attendee’s attention,” Fletcher said. 

At IMEX America in Las Vegas, Freeman showcased a new booth design highlighted with a curved LED wall with a 3D effect. That, Fletcher said, ”helped showcase the scope and scale of Freeman’s custom AV innovation.”

Because LEDs are energy-efficient and last for years, many exhibitors are popularizing more uses for the technology. As one example, in the future, LEDs may be used for digital fabric graphics—similar to the moving Harry Potter newspapers, but on a huge wall.

“You’ll continue to see more and more utilization of LED tiles, transparent LEDs and curved-screen displays. You can go big and bold and make a huge impact,” Bartelt said. 

While some lighting has gone wireless, most is still provided in the traditional way. Wireless arm lights and recessed puck lights are on the market, but the majority of trade show lighting is still wired because of its reliability. 

“People don’t want things to go wrong during show hours when it can’t be fixed easily. Plus, they already expect wire management and connectivity to be part of their installation service,” Bartelt said.

Going digital

It’s not just about lighting. Companies get creative when it comes to making their booths more interactive and engaging. As technology advances, it also becomes more accessible for exhibitors with smaller booths and tighter budgets. One example is flat-screen TVs, which used to be very expensive but now can be purchased for a few hundred dollars and installed in a small, 10-by-10-foot booth.

“People love the flexibility digital gives to make changes up to (and even during) the show,” Bartelt said.

That allows for messaging to be accurate to the day, hour and place where it is consumed. By providing digital content in a booth, businesses don’t need to have a highly trained sales force on-site. This also tends to benefit visitors, too. Exhibitgoers who want to avoid a conversation with a salesperson can simply watch a video.

Augmented reality is another trend Bartelt pointed to, with a screen superimposing content onto the real-world environment. 

“It’s a great way for people to get important information while interacting with a real-life product,” she said. That is providing powerful business opportunities for some exhibitors.

Along with the rise in digital content, however, comes a demand for data, which means more bandwidth demand at conference centers than ever before. (Read more in “Growing the Bandwidths at Convention Centers” in the February 2023 issue of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR.)

Getting it right

All benefits of technology—and exhibiting—are predicated on it being done right, Bartelt said. Bad design, information overload or do-it-yourself booths are easily spotted and reflect poorly on the company’s brand and product. 

“Better to start small and do it right until you can grow your presence, than go cheap and risk that kind of reputation damage,” Bartelt said.

To make all of this possible, conference halls are providing internet, audiovisual cabling and electrical connectivity through the convention centers as part of their show service orders. How much depends on the size of the booth. A 10-by-10-foot booth can get away with a simple electrical hookup, while larger exhibits require detailed plans for multiple electrical drops, internet connectivity throughout and a litany of other services.

Exhibitors will also continue to home in on technology use for pre- and post-show experiences. That can include customizing experiences for people. But the personal touch and relationship will still be front and center for face-to-face marketing. 

“As we saw during the pandemic, that can’t be replaced for people. Tech can only enhance it, not take its place. But real trust is built through human relationship and that is here to stay, too,” Bartelt said.

What’s on the horizon

The conference environment is by definition fast-paced and mobile, and the infrastructure needs to be in place to allow for technology advancements ahead.

Through a partnership with IT services company Zenus Inc., Austin, Texas, Freeman has recently implemented more technology to help understand the attendee journey. The company aggregated and anonymized data around booth visitors’ dwell time and analyzed sentiment and attendee activation. 

“The event industry must be adaptable and flexible to meet the needs of our clients and event attendees,” Fletcher said.

Even trends that don’t seem inherently technological can be digitalized. Take the move toward sustainability in trade shows. 42Chat, a conversational artificial intelligence chatbot service based in Draper, Utah, helps with real-time needs such as finding registration, locating an exhibit and other services, eliminating the overuse of paper while enhancing the attendee experience.

The bottom line is that digital content is here to stay. 

“I think it’s safe to say we’re moving to a digital world—in and out of the events industry,” Fletcher said. / suchywilk

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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