Since Rapiergroup started out in 1988, we’ve seen fads come and go, experiential design and technological integration rise and rise, and every aspect of the event experience become interconnected. We’ve seen Generation X give way to the much-discussed Millennials and sustainability become serious business.
In all that time we’ve never rested on our laurels - so right now, we’re looking forward to the next three decades, and how the event and exhibition sector will look on Rapiergroup’s 60th birthday...
Generation Z - the generation born in the mid 1990s to early 2000s - are about to come of age. They are digital natives, born after domestic Internet access became the norm. They’re entrepreneurial, and strongly motivated by personal curiosity and opportunities to help people.
As a demographic, they need to be offered value that extends beyond the purely monetary. Personal interest is one way to reach them - a brand’s credibility in terms of “paying it forward”, reinvesting profits in communities and people, is another. These abstract values will come to the fore in an event sector that’s less and less defined by products or services themselves.
Fairtrade products have already been doing something like this: if your event materials can talk up how you pay suppliers a fair rate, invest profits in community projects, or consult your consumers when designing your event or exhibition stand - and offer real, concrete proof that these are more than just claims - then you’re already going the right way. If nothing else, consider localising your stand build - use materials and labour that’ll help you build some credibility, rather than cutting your costs.
Stand builds will also need to build in a greater range of technology. According to Gartner, 95% of new electronic devices will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020 - including smart clothing. Automated meeting and greeting will become more viable thanks to wearables - remember, Generation Z are always online, even if their phone is in their pocket and they’re not looking at their watch. These devices will feed you data that can dramatically improve how you personalise your event logistics and communications, since you’ll be able to read preferences and state of mind off the devices. Even the event content itself can be tailored based on the location and activity of attendees on the day, shifting emphasis to flag up and respond to what’s being seen and discussed.
However, Gartner also predicts that by the end of the decade, there will be more fake news in the world than real content. As AI-generated ‘counterfeit reality’ becomes more and more sophisticated - driven by AIs that can think like people - consumer trust will decline. All promotions - including events - will need to demonstrate their authenticity and value in a world of increasingly less reliable claims.
The population demographic will be different: India and China will be the world’s most populous countries, and will continue to develop into the centre of geopolitical gravity. These are huge marketplaces, and brands may have to shift their events presence Eastward as the rate of growth in the West falls behind.
Shifts toward clean energy are likely, prompted by continued climate change, the exhaustion of fossil fuel deposits, and breakthroughs in nanotechnology. Low-carbon energy systems will become a necessity: travelling to events may become more of a luxury until long distance travel becomes carbon-neutral or better. ‘Green events’ will be a necessity rather than a nice-to-have branding point, as resources run out and responsibilities accumulate.
Generation Alpha will truly emerge in this decade. Born after 2010, this generation will have never known life without smartphones, social media and omnipresent connectivity. That’s the tech they’ll be born into using, and their early life will see further and further change. They will be used to sharing and accessing information in the blink of an eye, whipping consumables out of thin air with nanotechnology, and augmenting their own cognitive power with a cloud-based synthetic neocortex - a wireless brain extension.
Generation Alpha won’t treat apps and automation as novelty elements of a traditional exhibition - they’ll expect technology to be a fundamental part of the exhibition experience. This means a major shift in thinking for stand and event designers.
Instead of starting with a traditional stand and thinking “wouldn’t it be nice if we had an app”, the design process will have to treat the stand as the physical hub for an experience that mostly takes place online. That experience has to start delivering value from the moment the attendee first hears about the event - actually turning up at the stand will come fairly late in the game. Content will be almost totally personalised - there’ll be so much data on a person that your augmented intelligence will know exactly how to address their augmented intelligence.
Ageing in the population is expected to plateau by the end of the decade. 35% of the European population will be 60 years old or older (compared to around 9% in Africa). Healthcare and social protection are likely to see a further boom, creating opportunities for business growth and a need for further networking between service providers - and therefore causing a similar boom in events, conferences and exhibitions for healthcare, social work and pharmaceuticals. With retirement ages continuing to rise, event delegates are likely to be older; exhibitors will need to bear this in mind and continue offering a traditional face-to-face experience for a generation who aren’t always online, and may need more in terms of creature comforts.
By now, AI will be as ubiquitous as WiFi is today. Delegates’ profiles will be available at a glance, with facial recognition software summoning up identities, professional histories and business interests as soon as a visitor arrives at the stand. Metrics will become more and more detailed - dwell times, biometric indicators of interest and even refreshment preferences will be available in real time.
The new buzzword will be augmented intelligence. Driverless cars will bring VIPs to venues, providing immersive welcomes, briefings and orientation along the way, while independent robots and holograms will handle meeting, greeting and answering FAQs on site. The centrepiece of the stand itself may be a VR experience - an opportunity for attendees to explore the inside of an aeroplane, a factory, even the inside of an engine. Delegates will report back to their colleagues in real time - and those who can’t make it physically may participate in virtual form.
What won’t change? The essence of what an event or exhibition is for: communicating with prospective customers and clients, engaging with them, and guiding them along a journey that ends with a transaction. The expertise of your events team - and your agency partners - will still be valid and useful. The goals will still be the same. It’s technology, methodology and audience that are going to shift, and good event planning is always agile enough to handle these kinds of changes - even in the here and now.
The essential goals of exhibition don’t change. Here they are: let’s get to work on the next thirty years.