Interview with Chris Litchfield

Name: Chris Litchfield

Company: Rapiergroup

Job Title: Creative Director


What are the big trends in exhibition stand design? 

Exhibition stand design can no longer be viewed in isolation. It has to be viewed as part of a bigger story and journey. The big show stopping statement and event experience is not enough. Stand design needs to seamlessly integrate with other channels, which demands a much more dynamic and flexible approach to design. Architecture and surfaces are moving away from static brand statements to animated platforms for storytelling and engagement.

Exhibition stand design now needs to work much harder in order to make people feel and get them involved in a story. Design needs to engage and then re-engage visitors. Increasing demand for ROI is driving the need for more dynamic spaces that open up multiple layers of functionality, experiences and reasons to re-visit.

Technology is no longer a draw in itself. It doesn’t command the attention it used to. We have reached a level of tech maturity and familiarisation that means visitors want human experiences based on their needs and their needs alone. Visitors demand personalisation.

Technology can support and enhance the experience, but it isn’t the experience. The big idea that focusses on the visitor is above everything else. For years we have heard, “It’s all about digital, it’s all about technology.” This is no longer the case. It is all about people. People are the most important thing. They demand quality experiences online and offline.

The marketplace is extremely competitive and exhibition design should always be an important part of a bigger picture. It means there are no set rules or big trends. It means that this is a really exciting and creative time for exhibition stand design.


How international is the exhibition industry becoming?

At an international level, corporates still want consistency in their customers’ brand experience. This drives a global programme level approach with design controlled and maintained centrally. The property sets procured from a single source can then potentially benefit from scales of economy and consistency in design, manufacture and deployment. Typically these are then stored regionally and reused locally.

The second and growing model is production being far more international, favouring devolvement to much more local production and outsourcing on a very international level.


What is driving this internationalisation?

Many larger businesses now have operations in multiple countries to allow increased access to emerging markets. The emerging economies sheer size and demand have driven this shift. Combined with cross border acquisitions, partnerships and other organic growth internationally. A local operation provides the ability to meet much shorter lead times. It also supports the increased requirement for personalisation for a local market or individual. Companies now must think and act for their international customers’ ‘local’ preferences.

Increased costs of transport, logistics and a real focus on sustainability objectives, mean sourcing and working locally often make more sense.


What has been the best innovation of the past 5 years? 

There has been an explosion in content driven experiences, fuelled by the revolution in personalised digital applications and mobile devices. The increasing power of mobile communication technology means linear, fixed presentations, the ‘looped corporate videos’ that were taken for granted on exhibits, are a thing of the past. Content now blurs previous boundaries and increasingly the user demands control of what, when and how they consume information.


What are clients looking from their stand designers? 

A deep understanding of their needs and the ability to craft a customer journey that creates really meaningful engagement. The vision to see big picture and channel neutral thinking when creating solutions.

Clients are becoming more willing to be part of the creative process and are taking a much more collaborative approach to working with designers. They see the benefit of exploring the challenges and setting objectives together early on in the process. It sets the path to success in creative concept development and makes for a much more efficient working model.


To what extent is technology impacting on stand design? 

10 years ago it did in a very big way, but that is no longer the case. The demand now lies in customer focussed human experiences that span multiple channels with consistency. Technology supports stand design and the whole visitor/customer experience and journey, but it no longer impacts or dictates it. Our digital maturity means that the majority of people are savvy to what technology can and cannot offer them. A new piece of AV or app is not enough to impress. It has to mean something and support a great idea. Face to face contact with real people is very important and is sought more than ever before, but only if done well and on the customer’s terms.

It is all about making sure you execute the right type of experiences at the right touch points. Whether they are online or offline, on a device or within an exhibition hall. The experience and journey that is needed has to be established first and that in turn defines the appropriate technology.


What do you expect the next 5 years will hold for exhibition stand design?

We expect to see a new era of creativity, with a sense of maturity and wisdom. Ideas and technology for the sake of it have been exhausted and this is being replaced by a new era of depth and meaning. Exhibition stand design needs to facilitate deeper and more meaningful human engagements. It needs to make people feel in order to help drive decisions and actions.  It needs to be much more of an integral part of the human experience that should be present throughout a whole marketing and communications plan. It needs to work hard without looking like it is doing so. There are big challenges ahead for the future of exhibition design, but they are positive and exciting ones that have the potential to be incredibly inspirational.


Do exhibitions get the status they deserve versus other marketing channels?

It depends on the industry. Some have a big focus on face to face interaction and networking. In these industries, people naturally see the importance of the exhibition experience. This is not across the board though and even where networking/face to face is seen as important, business sometimes don’t actually maximise the importance of and opportunities within exhibiting. In these cases, exhibiting can sometimes be written off as a poor ROI. It can sometimes echo what we see in the retail industry with high street shopping. If you are not generating a successful outcome, you do have to question your approach and offering. If it is good and in line with what your customers needs, you are more likely to be successful.

Exhibitions can be a valuable part of a marketing and communications plan and if considered, created and executed the right way as part of a bigger picture, they deserve great status (because they have earned it).


What’s the best exhibition stand or event you’ve seen in the last year?

I visited Sydney at the same time as the Vivid Festival this year. Vivid is a festival incorporating light shows, live music and ideas based events on a fantastic scale. I wasn’t there to attend the festival, but what I experienced was amazing.

Light shows, cleverly combined architecture, technology and content in incredibly clever ways. Projection mapping was used really effectively, the choice of content and surfaces (usually buildings) working beautifully together. The combinations often making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

From a personal perspective, it really challenged some of my own assumptions about traditional limitations within exhibition design and inspired my team to think very differently about some of our work since then. It helped me view the relationship between content and architecture in some new and different ways, highly relevant to current work and client’s needs.

In short, it was the event that has inspired me most over the past year. The energy I felt and level of engagement I witnessed on the streets of Sydney during the festival is something I want to achieve much more within the world of exhibitions.


If you could change one thing about the world of exhibitions what would it be?

For exhibitors to realise the potential of exhibiting and properly harness the power of it. A lot of people still just want a nice stand and it is not viewed part of the bigger picture and customer journey. A nice stand is not enough. Creating a nice stand is not getting the best out of talented professionally trained designers. Design can work so much harder and more intelligently than that, but often you are presented with a case in which that is all you are expected to offer.

Mind-sets are changing though and we are seeing more and more that clients value more strategic and creative thinking. We are slowly seeing more investment in time in the early stages of the process and a more collaborative approach to defining objectives and creating briefs that align with wider strategy. Clients are understanding how agencies can offer so much at these early stages. Writing good briefs is hard work! A true brief effectively informs design and ensures the end result means something and achieves what it needs to do. Evaluation of design becomes much more objective and less about, “I like this and I like that.”

It’s a slow process of change and there is a long way ahead, but we are optimistic about the future.