The importance of the venue at exhibitions

Jochen Witt and Gerd Weber of consultancy JWC look at perhaps the most essential element of exhibitions: The venue

With 20 years of the internet economy impacting on our industry, and after many discussions about the future development of real (as opposed to virtual) trade shows, the trade fair business has proved to be very resilient. This success can be largely attributed to good concepts, clever marketing, a highly skilled and adaptable staff. But it can also be attributed to the fact that more and more venues have been developed, and existing capacity has been pragmatically evolved and extended. In other words: Venues are still an essential foundation for our business.

It is therefore surprising that, when looked at from a global viewpoint, venue quality varies so widely in all relevant aspects. When planning a new venue or assessing an existing venue, the following main aspects need to be considered: Service quality; Efficiency; Safety/Security. Each of these aspects should address the different needs and requirements of all stakeholders, mainly investors, exhibitors, visitors and organisers.

Service quality

The service quality attainable within a venue is decisive for the ‘feelgood factor’ of exhibitors, visitors and guest organisers. It also underpins efficiencies and ease of doing business in the venue. The potential to be able to offer, and the consistent availability of, good service quality in a venue provide competitive advantages. The main objective is to ensure delivery of highest service levels to organisers, exhibitors and visitors by providing an extensive range of products, services and facilities most efficiently during their time at the venue as well as before and after the visit.

Even before giving thought to the strategic decisions relating to ‘make or buy’ choices, the venue manager/owner would do well to determine the range and scope of services to be offered,  their standards, processes, the required technical equipment as well as quality management systems and prices. Services may range from paid-for offerings like technical installations (back to our opening sentence in this article, consider which internet access technology will be available, should other technology enabling devices be needed, etc); advertising and marketing; stand construction; custom or logistic services to free of charge offerings like wardrobes; VIP rooms; prayer rooms and so on.

Early in the planning phase of a venue it is critical to establish a clear view of stakeholders’ expectations and to transfer these into requirements that will feed into the architecture of buildings. These must encompass – at a minimum – both functionality as well as attractiveness of entrances areas; campus-connecting boulevards; exhibition halls; conference centres; and last but not least, service points like restrooms and restaurants. All of these essential features should ideally be located in such a way that their whereabouts throughout the venue feel natural and convenient to visitors and exhibitors.

A typical trade fair entrance area may serve as an example. While an entrance may have to serve the purpose of making an aesthetic statement, the functionalities of an entrance should follow the usual routine visitors will undertake, that is: First wardrobe, then registration, then cashier, café, restrooms, entrance security and control.

And one final note on ‘attainable’ service quality within a venue: Consider how far a distance an attendee has to walk with his or her luggage, from the point where they are dropped off by various means of transportation until they can relieve themselves of the weight either by reaching the wardrobe, or getting assistance from available staff. Should the distance walked be outside subject to weather conditions, or should it be within a covered or temperature controlled facility?

The key point here is this: As part of the venue construction or extension planning, have these questions been asked at the right time?


Besides delivering immaculate service quality it should be the aim of a venue owner/manager to reduce investment and operating costs for a venue to a minimum without compromising on safety, security, and service quality.

Significant reduction in capital expenditure can be achieved through appropriate and timely planning of the venue with a focus on efficient design, layout of buildings, connectivity of halls, the footprint of service and technical rooms, and associated technical installations.

Operating costs will be influenced largely by installed technology, fit-for-purpose maintenance programs, training and education of staff, clear definition of processes and quality management systems.

All those aspects will not only deliver turnover and profit potential, as well as cost advantages to the venue, but will also secure customer satisfaction. A guest organiser will appreciate natural visitor guidance structures within a venue as there will be a reduced need for the organiser to spend heavily on temporary, expensive visitor guidance systems for his show. A venue investor will appreciate if a given budget renders more exhibition space than initially thought possible, by looking more closely at customer service space as may be appropriate, or by optimising space allocated for technical facilities and back office functions. During operation, these efficiency gains are many a time invisible to the “cost accounting systems” of venue operators and guest organisers. But make no mistake about it, these are true costs impacting everyone doing business in the venue. On the one hand they impact the bottom line, and on the other hand they can impede venues from being perceived by stakeholders as a great place to do business.

A good venue should also allow for a highly flexible use of the facilities. It should be possible to use different halls simultaneously for different kind of events, to use these halls simultaneously for different phases of events (i.e. shows in building-up or dismantling phase, shows taking place) without interference for visitor and exhibitor logistics. This always constitutes a challenge for venue planners, and typically requires some of the toughest trade off decisions to be made, but proper planning is very rewarding. It will translate directly into improved future revenue streams. 

Safety/ Security

When covering security, one tends to primarily wrap together all the activities and technology concerned with letting the right (permitted) people the right access to buildings or additionally reserved areas.

Safety on the other hand denotes all activities and technology, which are necessary, to preserve the integrity (well-being) of all people, who participate at the events (exhibitors, visitors, staff, media management and subcontractors and other stakeholders).

Safety is probably the most important but likely also the most underestimated dimension of the venue quality. As long as no larger incident occurs during moving-in, during the show and whilst dismantling takes place, neither organisers nor venue owner/manager seem to spend much time and resources on this subject. However, a high visibility incident with serious injuries or even fatalities would have a major impact on the organiser, the show, the venue and possibly the entire trade fair industry.

Considering what poor safety standards we have seen in some parts of the world, this subject must get into the focus of venue owners, venue managers and organisers alike.

When assessing the safety of a venue, many criteria need to be taken into account: First to mention are the stability of the buildings and the availability of technical equipment like smoke detectors and an effective sprinkler system. One might think this would be a minimum standard prevalent across all the geographies of our industry. However, as we have recently seen, even in Europe stability of buildings is not always a given. Some European venues do not have a sprinkler system installed. When looking into emerging markets, the variability is even wider, and one can frankly say the situation in some cases is untenable. At present there are venues in operation which have no fire detection and sprinkler systems, lacking appropriate fire exit paths, any emergency rescue guidance scheme, or even exit doors. These venues do not provide a minimum standard of safety for their tenants.

Secondly, processes, policies, emergency plans along with roles and responsibilities of all internal and external staff need to be established. In our work we have seen this not to be the case on quite a few occasions. An organiser would be well advised to consider not only auditing the venue facility and its ‘hardware’ (and document this step appropriately), but also conduct a review of the above mentioned processes and policies well before entering into a binding agreement, and well before the event, as some corrective measures, which take time to implement, might be unavoidable.

Thirdly, safety standards, and adherence to them by all external service providers, need to be checked and monitored and verified on an ongoing basis. Thinking back to some findings from a recent venue assessment, we observed emergency exits of the venue blocked by staples of carpet rolls. Upon further investigation it became apparent that these were placed there by an external service company. Other emergency exits where not marked at all, whereas the guest organiser wasn’t aware of any emergency plans of the venue. Neither the venue manager nor the guest organiser had sufficient emergency plans with clear roles and responsibilities.

Finally, we could not find any evidence that there was any attempt at coordination between the two parties when it came to a plan of response to potential safety hazards.

It is obvious that in this case, a large-scale incident would not only raise questions of legal responsibilities towards both the venue manager and the guest organiser, but also severely damage the image of the show and all parties involved.

In summary, venue quality is a decisive competitive factor. Broken up into three main areas of service quality, efficiency and safety/security, it can and it should be managed carefully. Safety, while having the biggest downside potential if things go wrong, is surprisingly the most neglected aspect of the three. It deserves to get much more attention from venue managers and organisers. In particular, venue managers and organisers are well advised to thoroughly check and document the safety of a venue, the safety standards of external service providers, and to be sure to agree on the complex task of coordination of all relevant safety systems, processes and plans well in advance of each event.

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