7 Sources for Exhibit Design Inspiration

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Photo by Marlys Arnold

Photo by Marlys Arnold

A few years ago at the EXHIBITOR Show in Las Vegas, I coordinated a field trip called “TSI: Trade Show Investigation.” I led two teams of exhibitors (investigators) along the Strip, stopping at New York New York, the Venetian, and other locations to “gather evidence” of things they could use in their future exhibit displays. The idea was to cause participants to stop and examine the elements around them to discover what makes a place engaging and memorable.

Want to do your own TSI field trip? Here’s where to look:

  • Retail stores – Because an exhibit booth is essentially a temporary store, it’s no surprise that many of the designers of exhibit displays also design for retail. So why is it that so few exhibitors study how retailers use their store windows, signage and merchandise displays to attract attention and create a desire to purchase? Walk the sidewalks of virtually any shopping district and study the windows that grab your attention. Is it the colors or props used? Perhaps there’s an element of surprise or whimsy? Or maybe it’s the big, bold signage that catches your eye. Make notes and analyze why it works.
  • Museums/Galleries – If retail stores are one parent of trade show exhibits, museums are likely the other, and they too often share the same design houses. But while retail displays are typically static, museums are created with a focus on interactivity and engaging the visitor in a story. Color plays a role here too, along with lighting and often multisensory elements. How can your booth tell a story and invite exploration?
  • Hotels & Restaurants – For those who exhibit often in major cities, spending time in hotels and restaurants comes with the territory. But how frequently do you use that as an opportunity for research? The truth is that today’s hospitality climate is highly competitive and even hotels that aren’t high-end are taking steps to brand themselves and create welcoming environments. If you’ve ever been to Vegas, you know that hotels there pull out all the stops to impress guests and create loyalty. From the moment you walk in the door, you feel you’ve been transported to another continent or time period (or both). In addition to the atmosphere and multisensory elements, hotels and restaurants also have multiple activity zones. In hotels, there’s the lobby and front desk (welcome area), the business center (work area), ballrooms (entertainment area), and of course the restaurant, which also has it’s own zones for entry, eat-in, take-out, and more. How can you incorporate these ideas in your booth?
  • Airports – Don’t laugh! These days, airports, like hotels, are scrambling to become more enjoyable and memorable. The Charlotte Douglas International Airport is famous for their long row of white rocking chairs with a grand piano nearby. Some fliers actually hope for a long enough layover that they can snag a few minutes rocking their cares away. Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall Airport caters to road-weary families with an aviation-themed play area. What unexpected elements can you offer in your booth to cater to attendees’ less obvious needs?
  • Expos Outside Your Industry – While some shows may be off-limits if you’re not an industry insider, others are more open to visitors, plus there are consumer shows held in most every city throughout the year. Walk the show floor to see what catches your eye, and why. Which booths are the most popular? What are some of the most innovative and engaging elements?
  • Theater – Anyone who’s worked a show would agree that Shakespeare’s famous quote, “All the world’s a stage” could easily be tweaked to “All the trade show’s a stage.” So it’s no great stretch to see how the thespian world holds inspiration for exhibits in set design, lighting, and signage. (Is it any wonder people collect those classic theater posters?)
  • Stadiums & Arenas – While this one may not be as obvious, there are lessons to learn from these venues. Today’s state-of-the-art stadiums are designed with high-tech tools for enhanced fan engagement and laid out to create efficient traffic flow. They also inspire a social experience where fans interact with each other. How can your booth be more accommodating and engaging for attendees?

No matter where you turn, there are tons of inspirational places just waiting for you to explore. We’ll delve even deeper into exhibit design ideas and trends during our featured Strategy of the Month calls for September in the Exhibit Marketers Café.

After your own TSI adventure, please come back and share your discoveries in the comments below.

© 2013 Marlys K. Arnold  (from the August 2013 TradeShowTips Online. To receive tips like this in your inbox every month, please take a moment to fill out this request.)


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Marlys Arnold

With experiences as both an exhibitor and a show organizer, Marlys Arnold has a unique perspective on trade show exhibiting. As an exhibit marketing strategist, she travels the country consulting and training on how to create experiential exhibits that produce significantly higher numbers of qualified leads. She’s led workshops for events ranging from local consumer expos to some of the largest trade shows in the U.S. She hosts the Trade Show Insights blog/podcast, and is the author of Build a Better Trade Show Image, the Exhibitor Education Manifesto, and the ExhibitorEd Success System. Exhibit Design That Works (the first book in the YES: Your Exhibit Success series) debuted in July 2017. She’s also the founder of the Exhibit Marketers Café, an online education community.

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