Crafting Memorable Moments at Expos & Events

Crafting Memorable Moments at Expos & Events

We all want our trade shows and events to be memorable.

Instead they often wind up mostly forgotten by the audience. But Phil Mershon doesn’t believe it has to be that way. Listen in as he shares strategies for how to:

  • Lean into your audience’s interests to create “magical moments”
  • Pay attention to the audience journey (especially for first-timers)
  • Create a culture for serendipity
  • Craft ways to avoid overwhelm

Here are links to resources related to our interview:

(Note: Some links on this page are affiliate links, which means if you click on them and choose to purchase I may receive a small commission or other compensation. You will not pay more for buying a product through these links. I’m disclosing this in accordance with FTC regulations regarding endorsements.)

About Phil Mershon

Phil Mershon
Phil Mershon

Phil Mershon is an idea generator who loves to combine products and ideas that help events become memorable and life-changing.

As director of experiences for Social Media Examiner, he oversees the signature event, Social Media Marketing World. He also leads online events like Video Marketing Summit and Facebook Ads Summit. And it’s not surprising that people often leave those events saying, “Best conference ever!”

Phil also hosts the Man in the Pew podcast for Christian men who want to integrate their faith into all aspects of their life, plus he’s the author of the upcoming book, Unforgettable: The Art & Science of Creating Memorable Experiences.


[00:00:00.310] - Marlys Arnold

You're listening to the trade show Insights podcast, season 17, Episode Eleven.

[00:00:19.390] - Marlys Arnold

I'm your host and exhibit marketing strategist, Marlys Arnold, bringing you tools to improve your exhibit results on today's episode, brought to you by the Exhibit Marketers Cafe, we're talking about how to create more memorable moments at your upcoming expos and events.

[00:01:01.840] - Marlys Arnold

Well, I wanted to introduce today Phil Mershon, who's an idea generator who loves to combine products and ideas that help events become memorable and lifechanging. As Director of Events for Social Media Examiner, he oversees the signature event, Social Media Marketing World, which is on my bucket list by the way. I hope I get to attend one of these days. He also leads online events like Video Marketing Summit and Facebook Ads Summit. And it's not surprising that people often leave those events saying best conference ever. He also hosts his own podcast, The Man in the Pew Show, for Christian men who want to integrate their faith into all aspects of their life. Plus, he's the author of an upcoming book, Unforgettable, which will teach all of us how to create more memorable experiences. Welcome Phil.

[00:01:51.570] - Phil Mershon

I'm so excited to be with a fellow Kansan. Thanks for having me here.

[00:01:56.290] - Marlys Arnold

Yes, yes, Kansan by birth always.

[00:01:59.810] - Phil Mershon

Yes. And you are always welcome to Social Media Marketing World. Come on out. We'd love to have you.

[00:02:04.530] - Marlys Arnold

Well, I hear so much about it. I know it's just it is an unforgettable experience, I know from the people that I've heard reports back from. But I want to get your perspective. I really enjoyed, I guess, a little bit of backstory here. I recently attended Liz Caruso's Techsytalk conference and you were one of the speakers there and so I really appreciated what you had to say about creating Unforgettable experiences. And it just really, it ties in so much. I mean, I've always been a big fan of creating more experiential, audience driven events and so I wanted to get your perspective on some of these kinds of things. So one of the big things that you talked a lot about was creating magical moments and I think that's so key, especially for conferences and trade shows. So give us a little bit more perspective on what you mean by magical moments and how we can actually create those.

[00:03:01.990] - Phil Mershon

Well, in the backdrop of that is if the listeners have read the book The Power of Moments, one of the things they talk about is Walt Disney World and Walt Disneyland. Disneyland. And how those experiences are not uniform when you go there. The authors of this book, Chip and Dan Heath, discovered that there's peak moments that when you lean into them in the right way, they can overshadow the negative experiences that are bound to happen. Like we all know there's things on a trade floor show that are tough. If you've got 1000 vendors or even 100, it can be overwhelming to people. And so if you can create an experience within that where it's an unexpected sort of thing, and it's like, wow, I didn't expect to see this. Like, recently we walked through the trade floor of Twitch, Twitch Con in San Diego, and they had an old school arcade setup right outside. And it just took me back to when I was in high school, and I wasted way too many quarters playing Space Invaders and other kinds of games. And so that drew me back. It touched nostalgia. I think that's one of the things that can be magical is you do things that are unexpected.

[00:04:17.220] - Phil Mershon

You lean into some of that nostalgia. So if you can understand your audience and I think this is where it starts, you got to know who is it you're targeting? Disney World knows that there's like three different age groups where kids are, and it's really about the kids and the parents of kids at age seven, age 13, and I think it's college. There's like three different ages. They don't expect people to come back every year. They know this is something that you're saving up for. This is not an annual thing unless you live locally, which we did, which was awesome, but instead you're targeting that. So what does a seven year old really want? Seven year old girl wants to meet a princess. Seven year old boy wants to meet Buzz Lightyear or whoever it might be, and they want to go on that ride. When you're 13, it's a different ride and a different experience. When you're 18 or 20, now you're capping off your growing up years, and the parents are in a different place. So can you, on your trade floor, lean into the emotions of what people are expecting? You know your audience better than I do, so you're going to have to, like, dig into the personas, and it's probably more than one personas.

[00:05:28.310] - Phil Mershon

What are they experiencing when they come? What kind of anxiety? What kind of aspirations do they have? What kind of solutions? If you know their age, generally speaking, is there some kind of experience that is nostalgic for them, that it's going to get them to relax and say, oh, I did not expect you to know that I like playing foosball. Like, they had a huge eight person foosball game at TwitchCon. It's like, whoa, that's really interesting. So can you lean into those? Magical means it doesn't necessarily have to be this really expensive, over the top kind of thing. It could be just you understand your audience really likes M and Ms. They really like carnival games, they really like whatever. So I think that's got to be where it starts, is who are your audiences? Who's your audience? And then what are some things that you know they love? And what can you pull off that is on brand for your event? Or in the case of, like, your exhibitors, can they create something with the information that you have? Because it could be micro experiences that are happening that all add up to this larger experience.

[00:06:38.320] - Phil Mershon

Because that's another thing I would tell you is one of the things I talked about briefly last week was this idea of time standing still and you create moments where this moment feels more important than all the other moments around it. So there's a sense of time stretched for you. That 1 minute felt like it was an hour because you created something that was so significant. And I don't know that you can create that. Obviously you can't timeline scientifically, you can't create it. But the sense of that I think you can create. But the way you do it is by telling great stories and just being really paying attention to all the little details. So that when you have this encounter, like, you know, we're having this conversation right now, and if I've done my job and eliminated the distractions and helped you by creating maps and guiding you to the right places, then all of a sudden you're going to meet someone or have a conversation with an exhibitor or go to a session that was just the very thing that you needed and didn't even know that you needed. I think the way that happens is paying attention to details.

[00:07:51.130] - Marlys Arnold


[00:07:51.790] - Phil Mershon

a big part of it.

[00:07:53.020] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and I love how you talked about creating that feeling of nostalgia and creating something where people feel like they're in the moment and that the phone is not a distraction. I mean, they are focused on what's happening. And it's really funny when you were talking about finding that nostalgia trigger, like the foosball game or whatever. I remember years ago I was on the planning committee for our local M PI conference and we did the whole theme of Back to School. And so the hotel where we hosted it, they got so on board with this idea that for one of the days our lunch was served school lunch style. I mean, they put all the tables in a big long row, the ladies, the workers at the hotel, they put the hair nets on and they served us on trays. So it was just like lunch. I mean, it was so fun. Everybody loved it. Even though not that school lunch necessarily brings back the best memories, but it was that nostalgia moment that everybody it was universal, that everybody could relate to it. And I think that that's something that's so, you know, like you said, you don't have to spend buku bucks to be able to create that kind of nostalgia magical moment.

[00:09:07.920] - Marlys Arnold

And you talked a little bit there about the stories and being able to craft a story. Let's go a little bit deeper into that about how could you tell a story with an event?

[00:09:24.640] - Phil Mershon

That's a really great question because there's your personal story that you're going to have that gets crafted while you're there. But I think the event tells a story some of it is what you just said. It's the theme that you pick. It's the expectation that you're building around, why is this event important right now? A great story follows an arc. We all know this intuitively. If we don't know it practically, we know that every story in Hollywood that's done well follows generally a theme where you've got a character who has a vision of somewhere that they want to get and they start out all optimistic. And then there's some kind of roadblock that gets in their way and there's a falling out, and they start to get emotionally depressed. And then they begin to make some progress, but then they crash again. And somewhere in that a guide comes along. And that guide helps them get to the journey and gives them the tools that they need. And ultimately, they reach this new level of success. And the story ends on a high. In most cases, it's called a horror movie if it doesn't

[00:10:34.010] - Marlys Arnold

or tragedy.

[00:10:35.350] - Phil Mershon

Yeah, different genres. So I think within an event, you have to be paying attention to that storyline. Your hero is the person coming in, your attendee who's coming into the experience, and they may be totally lost when they get there. And so you've got to be ready to even just help them feel comfortable stepping into the story, or they might leave. So that might be part of what it means to tell a story. So I think part of it is knowing what's the typical arc of your customer journey and again, back to your avatars. If you've got someone who is a longtime attendee of your event, that is a different journey than someone who's coming for the very first time and your events better than I do. But if it's an annual, that's got to be considered. I went to one event where everybody was used to going year after year after year, and I was a newcomer, and I felt very overwhelmed, and no one paid attention, and it was a bad experience. At first. It ended up being great, but at first it was awful. And so paying attention to how are they starting and what are their aspirations, what is that mountain that they're trying to climb?

[00:11:45.720] - Phil Mershon

What is the knowledge that they're trying to gain? What's the community that they're trying to enter? Are they coming alone, or have they come with a group of friends? Are they on this journey together, or do they feel totally isolated and you need to help them? That helps you tell the story is, okay, I want to help. Let's call her Sally. I'm going to help Sally, our metaphorical person who's kind of coming through this journey. And so she comes in. I'm helping her step in. Okay? She stepped in. She's like, okay, I can do this. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. I think I can. And she's getting in there, and then what's that first thing that's going to get in her way? What is it that's going to stop her, that's going to make her feel, oh, man, I'm not so sure anymore. Maybe it's still feeling isolated. Maybe it's feeling something else. Maybe it's like this knowledge is too extreme for me or I went to the wrong session. It's like way over my head, way under me. I didn't find the right thing. Or I went to the trade floor and oh my gosh, there are literally a thousand vendors here.

[00:12:48.280] - Phil Mershon

I don't even know where to start. So can you help her? Can you help her at that point overcome the resistance that might cause her to step out of the story or just to kind of get deflated? What are the resources? So this is the telling of the story. The way I'm thinking about it is how am I going to help her at each step of the way, keep entering into the story, going to the next chapter, turning that page, saying, I want to get what's more in this story? What resources are there? How do you become her expert? How do you become the person that's going to walk beside her on that step of her journey? So I think that's one aspect of telling the story and that probably another one is helping her shape the story that she's going to tell when she goes home. So I think the place where we don't spend enough time is what are people going to talk about when they go home? How are they telling the story to the boss, to their co workers, to their family about what happened? Are they going to talk just about the parties that happened and the really funny things that happened, which are not bad because that's good PR for your event?

[00:13:58.000] - Phil Mershon

Or are they going to talk about some of the profound conversations that they had, the learnings that they had that totally have reshaped the way they're thinking about whatever the expertise they came to learn? So in my case, social media marketing. Is that what they're going to talk about? And have you equipped them to think about that in the way that they're going to tell that story as they reenter life and keep that journey going?

[00:14:22.990] - Marlys Arnold

That's a really good point because I think a lot of times we do focus a lot on the arrival part and, you know, the first experience and the first impressions, but we kind of forget that it is about what goes on afterwards. And like you said, especially in a trade show for trade show relevance, they happen to go back and yes, justify to their boss why they spend all this money to go to the show, whether it be an exhibitor or whether it be an attendee. You know, they've got that motivation that they need to really show that it was worthwhile. Couple different things that I could think of when you were talking about that whole making that first time attendee somebody, especially if they arrive by themselves, feel more comfortable. A couple of things is I've been to a lot of events where they've had some kind of a first time orientation, and that can help. And that really helps you bond too, because you're bonding with all these other people that are just like you. They're coming in and they have no clue. And then the other thing is Exhibitor Show. Well, now, exhibitorLive.

[00:15:29.810] - Marlys Arnold

They always have. One of my favorite things is called Dinner with Strangers. And it's just you sign up. So like, if you came by yourself, or even if you didn't, you can sign up for they have maybe seven or eight different restaurants there around the area in Vegas. And so you sign up and which restaurant you want to go to, and you go to dinner with eight or ten different people that you probably don't know. And again, I've had some really great friendships come out of that. Just simple, you know, just having somebody to eat dinner with. And you've got this ability to have this wonderful networking experience. It's not overly engineered. And I think that's another thing you talked about was how can we create the opening or the opportunity for serendipity? Because we all say that's what's really the most important about events is those moments of serendipity, but there are ways that you can kind of lean into that. So do you have some other suggestions for how to build towards creating serendipity moments?

[00:16:35.810] - Phil Mershon

Well, I think what you just described are two of the things I would have said. I think others are creating an openness to talking to strangers, which it's interesting. Last week I did a focus group with some of our longtime attendees. We're coming up on our 10th anniversary, and I wanted to get their insight on what should we lean into to celebrate that and is there anything we used to do that we're not doing any more that you miss? It was quite interesting. They said in the early years it was really easy to meet people because actually they couldn't put their finger on why it was easier in the first few years and then not as easy in recent years. And I asked them a question. I said, you remember back in the early years, one of our exercises we did in the opening keynote is we brought a networking expert in who led a networking exercise where we invited you into specific conversations with your neighbors. We did that for about three years, and then we stopped when we moved, changed venues and didn't think it was that important anymore or whatever. I don't know.

[00:17:46.800] - Phil Mershon

It just slipped off our radar. And they said, you know what? That was it. Because that set the tone that we should talk to our neighbors, that wherever we are, the people surrounding us are incredible people, and it's okay just to open your mouth and say, hi, I'm Phil. Who are you? And all of a sudden you start hearing stories of, I didn't know I was sitting next to someone who does exactly what I do. I've heard these stories over and over and you probably have too, where people come up to you with this serendipitous thing happened. So I think one of them is that the culture that you create is set by your staff. It's set by the way, that you create space when you talk about the lunchroom, that's going to create a certain kind of space and it's also going to remind us of all the awkwardness of middle school when no one wants, who do I sit with? I don't know where to go. So the space that you create is going to either encourage people to look around and be open to conversation or it's like danger, am I going to back away from this?

[00:18:49.710] - Phil Mershon

So I think space matters. I think the way that you welcome people, the way that you set the tone of expectation that, hey, this is valuable to talk to strangers, having things like what you said, easy places to go to meet people, where some of the barriers been dropped. Obviously you've got to overcome a little bit of a nerves no matter what. Even if it's just opening your mouth and saying hi, showing up at a dinner, showing up at an orientation, showing up at a networking event. But I think the culture matters a ton. Apps can be super helpful. There's some apps out there that make it easy if you provide enough information in there that will help orchestrate connections that might take place that seem serendipitous, but it's made it way more likely because you're now in the right room. My friends used to say when I was single, you've got to show up to the watering hole, the right watering hole to find the right people. If you go to bar and you're not looking for someone who drinks, then you're probably in the wrong place.

[00:19:56.340] - Marlys Arnold

Exactly. Yeah. Well, and that's the good thing about events is it's already somewhat curated because of the, you know, what the event is or who's hosting it, so you know that everybody there has some kind of similar interest. But I love how you talked about doing the actual networking exercise in your opening keynote because that sets the tone. Not only do they have the opportunity to meet the people next to them in the keynote, but that kind of put that idea in their mind. So they continue to practice that and that conversation is going to continue whether on the show floor while they're networking at the reception, whatever. They've got that shared experience so they could come back around to whatever those questions, those icebreaker questions, were that they had during that opening keynote. They could continue to open conversations that way throughout the whole event. So that makes a lot of sense. I want to talk a little bit, and I know this is a huge topic, but one of the other things that you talked about in your session last week was how can we overcome exhaustion and distraction? And I know at trade shows, especially if you're an ADD kind of person, like trade shows are like way overstimulating.

[00:21:15.930] - Marlys Arnold

So how do we craft events that can help to keep that to a minimum where people don't feel just absolutely overwhelmed and more engaged on an ongoing basis?

[00:21:30.040] - Phil Mershon

So there's different kinds of exhaustion, right? So there's mental exhaustion, like you're just worn out from all the things that you've been learning. There might be relational exhaustion, particularly for your introverts who just kind of reached their capacity. There could be physical exhaustion that your body just can't keep going on without some kind of change of pace. I need to get horizontal to have 20 minutes. Could mean I just need to move. It could mean I need nutrition, I need more hydration. So I think it's defining what do we mean? And the other kind of exhaustion is like you implied, the overwhelm. So let's look at each one of those real quickly. The overwhelm, I think, can be handled through better communication. If you've got a lot of things going on, you still have to make it simple. The best websites make it really easy for you to say, do I want A or B or A, B or C. More than three choices and it becomes overwhelming. Great video games know the same thing. Seven choices. They likely won't choose any.

[00:22:37.560] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah, shut down.

[00:22:39.340] - Phil Mershon

You got to make it simple at each stage. So you got to look through your event from that perspective. So I think clear communication and communicating where people tend to consume, like thinking through it strategically and getting the right people thinking about that can help with that information exhaustion, we'll call it that I've never told before, but I think that's a good one. I think the physical exhaustion, some things that you can do or things like creating a quiet place where people can go and just literally kick up their feet, might be sleeping. It might just mean they just need some chill music. Or you've got chill music and there's no expectation of doing anything. Maybe you've got some fruit infused water in there. Whatever. I think it's paying attention to that physical need. It could be you've got some nutrition, which we all have that. Like, we all have coffee and we all have food around that's available. Those are things that we do. But are you providing the right kinds of food?

[00:23:40.530] - Marlys Arnold

I was just going to say that. Yeah, there's a difference between just having snacks and having something that's actually going to help reenergize people.

[00:23:48.390] - Phil Mershon

Yeah. Like the meatloaf and potatoes and apple pie for lunch is likely going to make them comatose. We have to think about is this actually going to energize or is it going to exhaust them and are we okay with that? And are they okay with that? So thinking through those kinds of things, I think movement can be a really helpful thing. Like, it's something we don't think about. I was with my PT this morning because I'm recovering from a shoulder injury, and he was telling me, you can't just do your exercises for 30 minutes in the morning. You've actually got to keep moving throughout the day if you want to recover. Otherwise, 23 hours is working against you for the 30 minutes that's working for you. And I think the same thing is true at events, is we've got to help people to move, especially if they're not used to being at events. Like, a lot of people are sedentary in their work and they come to our event and all of a sudden we expect them to stand for three days straight, walk way more steps than they're used to walking, perhaps some people.

[00:24:54.430] - Phil Mershon

So how are we helping them? And I think you can do things like having yoga classes and doing quick little movement breaks and things like that that can encourage me, people. I saw one event where they actually had massage chairs set up in their networking plaza, and they hired therapists to come in and provide massages, which that were extreme.

[00:25:16.310] - Marlys Arnold

Great sponsorship opportunity, by the way.

[00:25:21.790] - Phil Mershon

Sponsor, I think, was probably really happy.

[00:25:23.950] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah, exactly.

[00:25:25.170] - Phil Mershon

The mental exhaustion. This is a really interesting tip. A guy named Chris Penn, who may be known by some of your audience, he's a data scientist, but he speaks at lots of events because he understands data and many of us rely on that data that he collects and analyzes. But he was saying after we've been learning for a while, our brains need a change of pace. And it might be as simple as let's use foosball. It might be as simple as we need to just go do something as mindless as playing a game of foosball to regain our ability to enter into deep conversation or deep thought again. So are we providing those kinds of things that might seem frivolous and a waste of money? That in fact, you've seen the marketing shows where they've got a pool table or a ping pong table, and it looks like the guys are just going in there and wasting their time playing pool. But actually it's connecting synapses and allowing for the creative juices to get flowing again when you become exhausted. So do you have things like that built into your event that are allowing people to play as they break from the learning so that they can learn again?

[00:26:40.540] - Marlys Arnold

I love that idea. Yeah, I think that it's so true, just mixing things up. And I know so many shows, they'll have like an eight or ten hour day on the show floor, and it's like, that's exhausting for everybody. The exhibitors, the attendees, everybody. But to be able to change things up and do different things throughout the day gives everybody a chance to feel refreshed. And like you said, they're not going to just be exhausted after three or 4 hours and then just shut down for the rest of the day. So Phil, we could go on for hours. I know you've got so many great ideas. Tell us, when is your book expected to be out? I know it's coming up sometime next year.

[00:27:20.320] - Phil Mershon

Yeah, late summer, August, September, I think the official date September 5th, but they will I'm sure at some point next year, Amazon and Barnes and Noble will start taking preorders and it probably will ship earlier than that, so I know I'm going to get author copies earlier than that. So where I'm speaking at an event, I should be able to get it. So I'll probably have some way that people can order directly from me at some point next year as well. But they asked me to wait until it's actually available to do anything like that.

[00:27:49.210] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah, exactly. I know. Being an author, I know it's really hard to wait. It's like those in between months when the book is done and you're just waiting for it to come out. It's like, oh, please just get here. It's like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.

[00:28:02.210] - Phil Mershon

No, I'm looking forward to it and I'm sure I'll have a second version written by the time it comes out. It's so many things I'll keep learning as I talk to people.

[00:28:11.370] - Marlys Arnold

Oh, I know. It never ends. Trust me. Well, Phil, thank you so much for being our guest today on Trade Show Insights, and it's always great to learn new perspectives and new ideas of ways to make our events and trade shows unforgettable. So thank you so much.

[00:28:30.900] - Phil Mershon

Thank you for having me.

[00:28:39.560] - Marlys Arnold

If you enjoyed today's episode and would like more, you can subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive future episodes on your chosen device. Simply search for Trade Show Insights in Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or virtually anywhere else that podcasts are found, then click the subscribe button. Trade show insights is protected by the Creative Commons copyright license. You may feel free to share this recording with colleagues or embedded on your own blog, as long as it's shared in its entirety and is not used for commercial purposes. To learn more, please see the link in the sidebar of the show notes at Well, that's it for this episode of Trade Show Insights. Be sure to check out our show notes and archives at You can also connect with me using the social media links or the contact page on the site. I'm Marlys Arnold. Thanks for listening and be sure to join us next time for more tools to improve exhibit results.


The NEW version of Build a Better Trade Show Image has arrived!Click here to learn more