As the saying goes, the only constant is change. While creating spaces for human connection always remains at the heart of what we do as experiential marketers, the methods and mechanisms we use in environment, event, and trade show booth design will follow the context of the times. In 2020, marketers must balance the time-tested psychologies of audience engagement with the rapid growth of technology and the ever-shifting whims of cultural relevance. Experience is an art as much as it is a science, and art evolves; it pushes boundaries, or it grows stale.
When compiling the experiential and trade show booth design trends we will be seeing in 2020, we aimed to go deeper than a surface-level snapshot of the style of the day — High-contrast colors! Chunky fonts! Goodbye flat graphics! — and to cast a spotlight on the new tools and tactics that will meaningfully make us better at what we’re here to do.
With over three decades in this industry, from trade show booths to museum exhibits, to corporate environments and brand activations, and beyond, we see the changing trends first-hand every day. Stepping back, we also see an expanding field of play: experience is everywhere. Wherever humans interact, or even where a single person is engaging with their surroundings, the art of experience is a powerful force for change.
- 2020 Exhibit Design Trends
- Event Technology Trends for 2020
- The 2020 Marketing Landscape
- Experience is Everywhere
2020 Exhibit Design Trends
Over the past year, we’ve worked on trade show booth designs showcasing everything from helicopters to vegan mayonnaise. We’ve run events both intimate and large-scale. We’ve attended shows on medical devices, auto parts, eSports, outdoor retail, even trade shows about trade shows. We’ve built permanent environments for museums, retailers, and corporate offices. We get to see the experiential world from a wide variety of angles. These are the patterns that we’re seeing showing up in experiential design, with a focus on growing trends that go beyond pure aesthetics to help marketers achieve real goals.
How does your trade show booth design make people feel? More and more, exhibits are stirring up emotions in attendees by quite literally making them feel things, using tactile surfaces that are just too tempting to ignore. Shimmering walls of flippable sequins that must be flipped. Life-size pin art walls that immediately make a Star Wars fan want to recreate the Han Solo in carbonite pose.
Brands aren’t stopping at tactile experiences. Have you considered how your brand smells? You might want to. Scents, soundscapes, and flavors that evoke a particular mood, or tug at old memories are showing up more and more in experiential design, as well as retail spaces. The trend toward multi-sensory design isn’t just for fun: it’s effective. Strong visuals are a given in the world of experiential marketing, but multi-sensory experiences are much more likely to create lasting memories in attendees.
Nostalgia Comes to Life, Gets Modern
Tapping into happy memories from the past is a tried-and-true marketing strategy. Retro styling appeals to both those who grew up in the era and younger generations seeking the authenticity of old-school experiences. Experiential marketers are leveraging this trend, and we can expect that they’ll continue to do so in ways that are, at the same time, thoughtfully modern and appropriate for the day.
Neon signs are popping up everywhere, but look closely: those are environmentally friendly LEDs in disguise.
Vintage Airstream trailers that evoke the great American road trip are doubling as a high-tech mobile booth for pop-ups. Neon signs are popping up everywhere, but look closely: those are environmentally friendly LEDs in disguise. Hat tips to classic drive-thrus are showing up in trade shows and commercial environments. Nike even opened a pop-up diner in Chicago to support local athletes and a youth sports initiative (and, yes, you could eat there). And if you really want to feel like a kid, the gooey trend known as “the slime economy” is showing up at events large and small.
Read more: Nostalgia Marketing: The Past is the Future
What’s going on behind those walls? That’s the question companies are hoping trade show attendees will ask. There’s no question that open-sided trade show booth design is popular, and for good reasons: placing your product in full view encourages attendees to step into your experience. But brands are now looking to closed spaces as an alternative for specific experiences. Why? Start with curiosity. Like a wrapped present or a VIP exclusive event, when we know there’s something behind the curtain, we can’t help ourselves: we have to know more.
Experiential is all about people, and to truly speak to your audience, you must also meet their needs at a human level, one reason we’re also seeing a renewed focus on wellness at trade shows. An enclosed space can offer a sense of reprieve. The recent burst in options for soundproof booths and modular spaces — spurred by the challenges of coworking spaces and open-plan offices — creates new design options for private meeting spaces, as well as experiences targeted at weary show attendees. Savvy marketers looking to treat attendees like valued guests should consider creating a comfortable, quiet space, where guests can take a break, recharge their devices, and recharge themselves.
Look Down, Look Up
Flooring is not always the first thing you think about in trade show design, but we’ve been, well, floored by new designs we’re seeing in live events and experiences. More and more, we’re seeing not just new materials, but innovative uses of flooring, from bright striping to help attendees navigate spaces to eye-catching, artful designs that create a sense of flow and movement to gesture-based interactives projected under our feet — anyone for virtual soccer?
Don’t just look down; things are happening overhead as well. Exhibitors, particularly in the US, have often avoided hanging signs and overhead features for a variety of reasons: cost, weight, rigging regulations. New frame systems have changed the game, giving designers a world of new options to create floor-based overhead designs that are lightweight, don’t break the bank, and, importantly, conform to exhibit hall regulations. These provide new options for lighting and signage in 2020, as well as creating spaces for experiences that feel a world away from the trade show floor.
Spotlight on Sustainability
If trade shows aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of the word “sustainability” you’re not alone. An industry that leans heavily on spectacle is entering an era where consumers are demanding sustainable products and practices. For experiential marketers, this means finding ways to wow more responsibly, and finding ways to wear your green cred proudly and authentically.
In addition to sustainable efforts at trade show and conference venues across the US, we are starting to see sustainability featured explicitly in trade show booth designs as a signal to consumers that brands are walking the walk. Look for examples of upcycling in trade show booth design, from repurposed light fixtures to salvaged wood, booths that can be simply reskinned and updated, and the use of live plants in event spaces to indicate green, natural practices.
Event Technology Trends for 2020
When it comes to experiential marketing, story beats technology every time. That is, you have to know the story you want to tell before you begin to think about the best technology to tell it. These are the trends in new technologies — and, more importantly, the smart applications of technology — that will be driving connection and engagement, creating memories and moments of wonder as we go through 2020.
3D Printing Opens Up New Design Possibilities
The future promise of large-scale 3D printing has been talked about for some time, but, practically speaking, it has been financially out of reach for most companies. This year has been exciting, as we are seeing the technology evolving to bring more cost-effective solutions that don’t compromise on quality and function. The ability to 3D print true-to-size models of heavy industrial machinery and other large-scale products will drastically reduce drayage costs. Moreover, the complex shapes that were once difficult to fabricate are now approachable, offering incredible detail. 3D-printed surfaces and scale models can be used to create unique interactives and displays in combination with lighting and projection mapping.
The impact will extend well beyond trade shows: 3D printing will be used everywhere, from museums to corporate lobbies to art installations. Take the If/Then Initiative from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As part of a major art installation, we are live-scanning and producing life-size statues of 125 innovative women in science, technology, engineering, and math. When completed, this installation will represent the largest collection of statues of women in a single place.
Read more: The IF/THEN Initiative project
Everything is a Display
Thanks to lightweight and ever-improving LED technology, nearly any surface or structure can be turned into a display. And it’s not just LED panels. OLED technology is allowing the creation of transparent, interactive displays that were only in the realm of sci-fi fantasy just a few years ago. Holographic displays, gesture-based tech, smart interactive surfaces, and yes, flexible displays will be bending their way to a trade show near you before we know it. Now we just have to flex our creativity to find the best way to use these technologies to connect with customers in meaningful ways — not just to add more displays because we can.
Digital Content Takes on New Importance
Displays, displays everywhere, but not a word to read. If every surface has the potential to be a display, then companies need content to put on those displays. This is a new twist on an old story: starting with a desire to use a specific technology, while leaving the content — and the budget to create that content — as an afterthought. Remember: Your content is your story. Companies that are investing resources into thoughtful content that both speaks to their brand and addresses a real client need will stand out in the crowd.
AR Finds New Ways to Provide Value
The promise of augmented reality (AR) has been touted ever since the smartphone took over the world, but it took some time for it to work its way into everyday applications. Big brands are putting big bucks into making it work: Google Translate can do live translation using your phone’s camera, Snapchat filters can tweak your appearance, and the LA Times even created AR hamburgers in case you wanted to see them in delicious 3D superimposed on your desk.
For many experiential marketers, the cost is still a barrier to entry, it takes time to develop, and not every consumer will be enamored by the tech. But when done well, it can create real spectacle, a lot of fun, and actual utility with virtual apparel try-ons, event navigation, 3D booth design, and more. And if space is a constraint, no problem: AR isn’t confined by such trivialities. Expect to see more clever uses of AR in experience both large and small in 2020.
Privacy in the Spotlight
The timing is interesting: A wave of excitement over the possible applications of facial recognition technology at events — No badge scanning! Personalized content! — hits just at the moment when companies around the world are retooling their approaches to comply with new privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA.
From the perspective of a marketer, this should be seen as an opportunity to rethink outdated lead generation tactics and focus on the real connections that are the heart of our industry.
From the perspective of a marketer, this should be seen as an opportunity to rethink outdated lead generation tactics and focus on the real connections that are the heart of our industry. It’s in no one’s interest to misuse client data or violate their privacy. And facial recognition? It could use a moment to work out the bugs and find ways to be useful in a manner that’s transparent and trustworthy.
The 2020 Marketing Landscape
By definition, trends are observable changes in direction — a few years down the road, that direction could change again. But there are larger changes afoot in the marketing landscape that are too fundamental to call trends, rather they’re shifts in the paradigm of how we all do business. Expect these to be core considerations in 2020 and beyond.
Cause Marketing & CSR
Why are more companies publicly aligning with causes and talking up their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts? Because it’s the right thing to do, and consumers are showing their support by how they spend their money. Over 90 percent of millennial consumers say they are likely to switch to a cause-branded product, and other generations are not far behind. Taking no stance on issues of the day used to be seen as the safe road for companies, but increasingly it’s looking downright risky. When it comes to experiential marketing, companies need to do more than just exhibit their products and services; they need to show customers what they stand for.
Read more: Cause Marketing Goes Experiential
Over 90 percent of millennial consumers say they are likely to switch to a cause-branded product, and other generations are not far behind.
Influencer marketing continues to be a hot topic in the world of marketing, including in the B2B world where it has played less of a conspicuous role to date. Influencers aren’t going away (in fact they’ve always been with us), but brands are getting more targeted in their approach and focusing on authority — that is, relevant influence — over pure audience size. Look for influencers with specific domain expertise at live events and beyond in 2020.
Diversity, Inclusion & Accessibility
As with cause marketing, embracing diversity and inclusion in your events and trade show booth design shows the world what your brand stands for, and many of the top brands are leading the way. More than anything: It shows that you respect your client, no matter their background or preferred pronoun. One recent survey found that 70 percent of millennials are more likely to choose a brand if it demonstrates inclusion and diversity in its promotions. In terms of accessibility, trade show marketers are used to complying with ADA regulations, but that’s just a starting point. As a marketer, if you aren’t being deeply thoughtful about accessibility in all forms across your face-to-face marketing efforts, your design and your messages will miss the mark with people who want to be part of your core audience.
Yes, we also cover this in the Design Trends section, but sustainable thinking and practices go well beyond design. Supply chain, fabrication, transport, travel, waste — there are considerations at every step. (See, for example, what Patagonia learned when they examined the waste they produced at Outdoor Retailer in 2019.) The good news is that the exhibit design and events industry is taking sustainably seriously, in large part thanks to companies that are looking at their events programs to align with their larger sustainability goals as well as a new generation of consumers who are expecting more from the brands they favor.
Experience is Everywhere
The art of crafting experiences isn’t confined to trade shows and events. Retail stores, restaurants, museums, coworking spaces, and more — the tenets of experiential design cross all boundaries.
Retail. Bought anything online recently? Everyone else has too. Brick-and-mortar retail is adjusting to a new world order where online shopping is siphoning people away from shopping districts and malls. To entice shoppers back in person, retailers are embracing in-store experiences to draw shoppers and complement online business. Some of the biggest changes in 2020 will be in the area of point-of-sale technology, as well as new AI and big data approaches to help retailers thrive and connect with shoppers wherever they happen to be.
Restaurants. Delivery apps are changing the game for restaurants, and it’s affecting the way restaurants are approaching design. The success of gaming-meets-gastropub pioneer Top Golf gives a strong hint as to what the next phase will bring: experiences. To adapt to a new normal where delivery is a larger part of the dining landscape, restaurants that were once straightforward dining establishments will be using space for games and dining interactions that draw people in.
Museums. Have you noticed how museums of all sorts are increasingly focusing on experiences? Because museums are exhibiting every day, they’re experts at tailoring experiences for their audience, and have both a deep understanding of how people interact with exhibits and how to design experiences that last. Trade show marketers should be watching what is happening in museums to stay at the forefront of experiential design.
Trade show marketers should be watching what is happening in museums to stay at the forefront of experiential design.
Coworking Spaces. Flexibility. Privacy. Community. With companies coming together and interacting under the same roof, a coworking space isn’t just an office: it’s an experiential space that requires thoughtful design. As coworking spaces have become more popular, they’ve become more tailored to their audiences, and have been innovating both in terms of design and how they interact with other synergistic businesses.
Cannabis. With laws changing and relaxing around the US, the cannabis industry is booming. The boom would have been even bigger if it wasn’t for the unique hurdles the industry in being forced to jump over. As industries mature, events grow up around them. You can expect that experiential, both in an expanding network of trade shows and expos as well as innovative in-store experiences, is where this budding industry is going to thrive even in the face of a rapidly changing market.
When designing spaces for human interaction, we have the opportunity to ignite curiosity, awaken emotions, and leave indelible memories. In 2020, our task as experiential marketers is to leverage the technologies available in the context of the times, and meet our audience wherever they are — whether on trade show floors, or in parks, public squares, briefing centers, airports, stadiums, or beyond. Let’s make 2020 an experience to remember.