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  • Writer's pictureJB Hale

Musings on the Socially Distanced Trade Show

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

2020 is a strange time to be an exhibit designer. It's a strange time to be anything really, but times are especially daunting when one's livelihood depends on a business that, over the last few months, has pressed the "pause" button in very big way. Shows are cancelled. Client bases evaporate.

There have been some faint glimmers of hope as workers cautiously return to their offices and some formerly-closed retail locations get set to re-open. The corona virus pandemic has caused many companies to re-evaluate their much-loved open plan layouts and opt for more separation between employees and clients. In a way, it's a return to an older way of thinking about office layouts. Not exactly a return to the much maligned "cube-farm" solution, but definitely a return to an emphasis on individual space. That being said, I've designed plenty of office separation partitions over the last few months and that has, at least, been rewarding both by helping to fill some of my vacant work schedule, but also by making me feel like my design skill is useful in meeting some of the current challenges. Admittedly, to me, figuring out plex partitions and room dividers is pretty simple when compared to sophisticated exhibit design.

I have seen some recent attention being given to idea of the virtual trade show. It's a great idea that has been discussed for decades and I've always felt that there are some unique possibilities inherent in virtual events. I also feel that, to date, they have never really been executed in a way that fully exploits their potential. Since the pandemic stopped all of our events short, I've attended a few of these shows, and to be honest, I've found most of them to be less than compelling. "Exhibits" are usually little more than a link to a website or video and sessions and keynotes are much the same, usually just a video of someone speaking on a stage. The whole interactive element inherent in a live show always seems to be missing. I believe that a better experience could be created by using some of the same technology found in MMORPG environments. This would take a commitment from show-organizers to creating a compelling virtual environment and they would need to leverage the talent of graphic artists and game-developers, rather than those physical builders and installers.

Think about that for a minute. When you sign up to attend a show, you would pick out an avatar, just as you would do in an online role-playing game, and this would become your identity as you move through the world that is "the show." In this environment, you would react, in real time, with other characters who would be both exhibitors and fellow attendees. The created world wouldn't necessarily need to reflect a show venue either, it could be anything really: A strange, alien world or undersea environment, you name it. The possibilities are limitless. True, you may never be able to have an enjoyable lunch with a colleague's avatar, but a virtual show could still prove to be a very rewarding and exciting experience for participants. There would also need to be a great deal of design work in visualizing such an event.

In any case, I don't think the visceral experience that is a trade show or corporate event will ever be replaced completely by a virtual experience. There is just something that is too meaningful about meeting people face-to-face to share companionship and ideas. That cannot be replaced, no matter how great your avatar looks.

That being said, I have also been thinking a lot about how actual physical exhibit design might be affected by social distancing requirements once physical shows do return. Yeah, I get it, the socially-distanced trade show sounds like a contradiction to my ears as I'm sure it does to yours, since the primary purpose of a trade show or business event has generally been to bring people together to experience new products or to share in the expertise of their given colleagues. However, while the pandemic is still a valid limiter, we might be stuck with distancing and protection requirements for quite some time if some shows are even allowed to re-open. Attracting an audience will also be of key importance and I feel intelligent design can go a long way toward restoring participant confidence and keeping everyone safe. Face masks and germ prevention gear will still be required, of course which, in and of itself, may open up some new possibilities.

The future?

All kidding aside, here are some of my thoughts about shows in general: It may become necessary to increase the running time of many popular events so that all persons desirous of attending may be accommodated. This might mean that the most popular sessions and keynotes will need to be repeated over several days since formerly large audiences may not be able to attend a single presentation. Really popular presentations may need to have more than just one showing and the exhibit hall may need to stay open a bit longer as well so that everyone will be able to see all that they want to see. Hopefully, organizers might offer larger spaces for a discounted rate (hint, hint), since the same amount of real estate from 2019, will not be able to accommodate the same volume of guests in 2020 and beyond.

Let's get back to booth design and some basic ideas. For this exercise, I've focused on the ubiquitous 20' x 20' exhibit, since this size would be most affected by the new space limitations. There isn't a lot of space to play with in a 20' x 20' to begin with and when you go-around spreading people out, you end up with a really critical situation in an already limited space. I must admit, at the outset of designing these concepts, I was struck by the feeling that these are just really bad designs. Spaces that don't use space-planning very efficiently. The emphasis in smaller spaces is usually to appeal to the greatest number of attendees, get them in, qualified, scanned, and through the space in the best order through use of clever traffic flow solutions, etc. After working on these concepts for a while, I began to realize that bad design had very little to do with it and that the new criteria might just be a great challenge to think about space in a new way and become aware of new needs. "I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds."-Brian Eno.

I purposely didn't include any wiz-bang design language in these concepts apart from the basic layout of the space and the elements therein. Those who know me and my work, probably know that entertainment value is really high on my list of essential elements for each space I design. There really is none of that here. Just basic space planning, unless you are entertained by isolation, of course, then you should be well pleased.

Let's begin with Concept A: For this study, I have left it up to the attendee to follow the rules of basic social distancing. Much like at the supermarket or big-box store, distanced spaces have been marked on the floor and each individual has been tasked with the job of observing them and standing or sitting accordingly. Minders might need to be employed to see that these rules are observed, which could give "crowd-gatherers" the entirely new job of "crowd-dispersers," which in and of itself, might be an interesting thing to see. The main presentation display is large so that it may be viewed by everyone within the space and also any interested parties loitering in the aisle. The show is driven by a presenter who is protected behind a physical barrier. The barrier is see-through and somewhat sound-permeable, so that a Q & A session may be conducted if desired. In all of these cases, sound-enhancement will be necessary so that the presenter can be heard by the audience. This is usually required for larger presentations in any case, but it will become very important when social barriers are present.

Demos are handled in much the same fashion as they typically are at tech shows, but in this layout there is near-complete protection for the demo-driver and separation markings for the attendees. Demo operators need the most protection in these scenarios, since they would be most at risk. After all, they come into contact with more people and for longer periods than other participants. I haven't even begun to address any kind of sit down meeting space in these concepts, since space for presentations and demos is at quite a premium already. That's not to say that in-booth meetings can't be accommodated, it just means that some hard-choices would need to be made as to what is the most important activity to take place within the space. My work has been largely in various tech fields, so in all of these cases, I've chosen main presentations and demos as the prominent features.

Concept B: Controlled entrance to the interior booth space. In this case, the number of guests allowed into the space would be tightly controlled, much as they currently are in many retail locations. Video monitors are provided facing the aisles and they are connected to the main presentation when it is being given. This allows viewing from any place around the perimeter. The lucky ones get to sit in the interior of the space and watch the demo which may prove to be an attractive incentive in and of itself. In all of these concepts, what became immediately clear to me was the importance of keeping sight-lines open to the main presentation, even when there is a closed perimeter.

Concept C: Individual protective barriers for all attendees. Each viewer has their own semi-enclosed space to view the main presentation or a demo. Once again, preserving sight lines becomes extremely important in this kind of solution. I originally tried to use existing system frames with plex inserts to create the protective partitions, but it became instantly apparent that this resulted in just too many obstructions in front of the individual viewers, much like going to the ballpark and finding yourself directly behind a support column. No fun. I found a solution for this by designing a purpose-built partition that would minimize visual obstructions, while also maintaining good airflow to prevent overheating. A wireless indicator light is activated by a foot switch when a participant would like to ask a question. There is also a small wireless speaker and possibly a microphone to facilitate Q & A sessions. To be honest, this concept seems like a bit of overkill to me, but I do feel it would be negligent to not explore the idea in some depth.

Concept D: For this final concept, I've taken a page from the airport check-in playbook and given each guest an individual small monitor kiosk. These kiosks also incorporate sanitizing stations for use by each viewer. They can also be either a touchscreen or standard monitor, a choice which would probably be determined by the client's available budget. Touchscreens can be quite pricey to rent and manage, but standard small screens are generally very inexpensive. As in the previous concept, I've also included an indicator at each station that would light when a viewer would like to ask a question. If a touchscreen is not used, then the aforementioned foot switch concept might become useful again.

The main presentation screen is located overhead, so that it is also visible from the aisle. This design also helps to keep the presenter in his or her own isolated area. In my experience, I've also noted that many demos are conducted side-by-side with the demonstrator. I've incorporated this idea into this concept as well by providing a clear partition between presenter and viewer with a cutout section around the monitor and countertop. That's not to say that the demo would be limited to one person only, just that it would be up to the attendees to socially distance themselves on the outside of the barrier.

I like the quote from actor/director Orson Welles, "The absence of limitations is the enemy of art." I believe this sentiment strongly applies to good exhibit design as well. As a designer, an applied limitation is something that has to be dealt with on a daily basis, be it a limited budget or a fast approaching deadline. Design is a communication-art, after all. Designers are entrusted with the ability to assist our clients in realizing a vision which they may not even be able to articulate. Especially, in challenging times, thinking about design in a counter-intuitive way sometimes leads to the best solution. Although, I would think it delusional that we can design our way completely out of the current crisis. However, I do think that with a little bit of creativity we can lessen its effects and make those who work and attend trade shows and events feel a bit more safe as we all travel along the road to recovery.

June 19, 2020

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