Festivalisation has been one of the fastest growing buzzwords in the global exhibitions industry – but is it something trade show organisers should be taking seriously?

On the face of it, trade shows aren’t complicated.

You have some buyers and some sellers, working in the same sectors, and you pop them all in a room together. With a bit of luck, and perhaps some gentle cajoling, they’ll do business – and everyone leaves happy.

Of course, as the saying goes, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. The success, or otherwise, of a trade show relies on a multitude of factors including the experience of visitors attending the event. While the recent Global Visitor Insights survey carried out by global exhibition association UFI, in partnership with research company Explori, found that overall visitor satisfaction was fair steady (around 70 per cent), organisers have nonetheless been striving to improve the overall experience.

Which brings us to festivalisation. The term itself is a bit of a buzzword, but the trend of organisers mixing up the traditional trade show and conference formats has certainly piqued the interest of the industry.

We asked four event profs for their take on the evolving business visitor experience.

Nancy Mollett, convention director, ICC Wales

“We’ve watched the growing trend for festivalisation and worked to integrate this into our venue where we can. Catering is an area where borrowing from festivals works really well. For many nowadays, the traditional format of three coffee breaks, a fork buffet lunch and gala dinner is no longer enough, and it is the responsibility of venues to be creative and help clients make their event feel different and innovative. More relaxed styles such as street food vans, rolling refreshments and grazing stations ensure that delegates get a unique experience as well as maximum time to interact with each other in a relaxed environment.

“Another trend that we have seen more of is for holding meetings and events outside. This can help to create a really experiential event, a relaxed feel and provide some fantastic ‘instagrammable’ moments. ICC Wales is surrounded by woodland, as well as the comfortable pod shaped chairs under the trees make relaxing break out spaces, nature watching stations and an outdoor plaza, allowing clients to incorporate the outdoors into their events.”

Simon Mills, executive director, ExCeL London

“At ExCeL, we recognise the importance of delivering innovative events that provide visitors with a truly immersive experience. In an age when people are time-poor, organisers have to deliver an event that is not only worthwhile but is truly memorable. Increasingly the visitor experience is at the core of that approach, with every touchpoint being taken into consideration, from registration to features and content. We understand the crucial role that food plays in the experience and that it’s not simply about feeding the masses. Increasingly our clients want to be able to offer a unique experience, on a large scale, which fits with their brand. Across the board clients are demanding different ideas, from using nutritious, locally sourced produce to street food and unique catering concepts, delving into the minute detail of the experience for their attendees.”

Sophie Holt, global strategy director, Explori, and author of the Global Visitor Insights report

“When we look at the views of over 13,000 trade show visitors around the world who responded to our recent Global Visitor Insights study, they give us a very clear message: It doesn’t matter whether events are entertaining as long as they can meet their business objectives.

“The majority of our current visitors (76 per cent) think trade shows shouldn’t become more like festivals.

“But this doesn’t quite tell the full story. Unsurprisingly, younger visitors (those aged 35 and under) are much warmer to the idea of festivalisation. This trend holds true even when we compare the views of just CEOs and business owners; twice as many ‘millennial’ CEOs thought trade shows should be more like festivals, than CEOs in older age groups.

“Younger CEOs were also twice as likely to say they would spend longer at a show if it was more entertaining.

“This suggests that whilst organisers of shows in the UK should be firmly emphasising the business benefits of attending, it is an important trend to watch for the future.  Millennials will increasingly hold the most senior roles in the markets our shows serve and they don’t appear to be losing their generational preferences as they get more senior in their careers. They will expect organisers to deliver both business benefits and an entertaining experience.

“The good news is, the aspects of a ‘festival-style’ event that appealed most to our respondents may not require a large investment from organisers. Talks and presentations delivered in different styles, was a popular trend across all age groups, especially younger generations who define themselves as content creators. New technology, such as VR was also popular, with up to 72 per cent of respondents in some regions telling us this was something they would definitely like to use.

“The appetite for more entertaining,  festival style shows is stronger when we look outside the UK at markets where the exhibitions industry is less developed, for example 43 per cent of respondents from Asia and the Middle East think they would spend longer at a more enjoyable event; almost double the response from markets such as Europe and North America.”

Chris Brazier, group event director, Diversified Communications

“While it’s important to come across as professional, it’s also important to us to show people a good time. We feel we have a responsibility to make sure these huge decision-makers at our trade shows are enjoying themselves as well as finding solutions for their businesses. At Diversified we work really hard to make sure the show experience is an entertaining and memorable one for visitors and exhibitors.

“We look at ways to include laughter in theatres, friendly experiences through networking and a great atmosphere by often utilising music around the show – we even put a huge DJ booth in the centre of the floor at Casual Dining. It fitted in with a huge part of the iconography of modern restaurants, pubs and bars but more importantly created a lively atmosphere for the two days that the sector gets together.

“We want people doing business but surely they are more likely to do business if they genuinely enjoy being at the event? By using elements of what makes the best festivals memorable we find buyers feeling that they want to go to a trade show, rather than having to go to a trade show.”