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Experiential Design Trends from CES 2024

This webinar walks viewers through 10 trends we identified at the 2024 International Consumer Electronics Show. From large-scale multimedia and theatrical lighting design to robotics and full-on theme park rides, these examples should ignite some ideas regarding how to up-level your exhibit and ensure your marketing efforts remain on the cutting edge.


Watch the one-hour webinar below or read the truncated transcript below.



Experiential Design Trends from CES 2024

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is such an important event within the trade show and events world, and it has the tendency to set the exhibit and experiential design trends for the coming year and beyond. So to keep you on the cutting edge of exhibit design, here are 10 trends we identified while walking the miles (and miles) of aisles at CES 2024 in Las Vegas.


Trend 1: Large-Scale Multimedia

What was once prohibitively expensive and reserved for rare and exclusive use is now comparably affordable, accessible, and quite literally everywhere we turn. A certain level of multimedia is practically expected as table stakes, potentially rendering a booth without them static, outdated, and boring. Multimedia adds two things humans are hard-wired to notice and respond to: light and movement.


In particular, transparent screens are now more popular than ever, and their presence in the consumer multimedia market will continue to push marketers to go bigger and bolder.

Another iteration of this trend is using screens not just as eye-catching attractions, but also to create fully immersive environments.


Another subset of the multimedia trend is projection, which often has many if not all the benefits of large-scale multimedia but with a lower price tag than massive LED walls — and with a fraction of the install and rigging expenses. Projection also tends to offer more versatility than large LED screens, as it can be applied to everything from exposed concrete flooring to projection-mapped displays and tensioned-fabric rigged elements.


Trend 2: Theatrical Lighting

As previously alluded to, all multimedia, video walls, and projections are quite literally light in a controlled form. But old-fashioned lighting design can offer many of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost of large-scale AV elements and equipment. For one, lighting can create colors that are so vibrant they don’t even translate into printed material, especially saturated blue and violet tones that tend to become darker and muddled when converted to CMYK. Bottom line, it’s not just color that creates this ambiance, because those colors can only be produced via light sources. And lighting need not be static. Some of the most inventive uses incorporate kinetic fixtures and even simple gobos to add movement and intrigue.


The benefits are, of course, a heightened sense of brand immersion. But lighting can also be used to strategically highlight products and displays, almost serving as a wayfinding element given its ability to direct guests’ attention. But be sure to work with experienced lighting designers who understand the limitations of the trade show floor — and start thinking about incorporating lighting into your exhibit as early in the design/build process as possible.  


Trend 3: Ceiling Structures

There’s nothing new about overhead elements, but their popularity has been driven by a desire to maximize the cubic content of booth spaces by building up instead of out. After all, booth space often eats 30-40 percent of per-show budgets. And nobody will remember the dimensions of your booth. But they will remember the visual impact it had on them.


Overhead elements are fantastic branding opportunities. They can support lighting and other attention-grabbing elements. They enable wayfinding on the show floor. And they help to delineate your booth space. So it’s no wonder why the recent show floors we’ve been on have been literally awash in rigged signage and ceilings. And while tensioned-fabric signs can certainly do the trick, the more elaborate the more attention they’ll attract. So incorporating lighting and even LED screens can go a long way toward making your exhibit a landmark on the trade show floor.


Trend 4: Enclosed Exhibits

The modern trend toward enclosed exhibits was initially borne out of creative attempts to maintain social distancing during and shortly after COVID. The idea was to limit entrance in an effort to prevent an exhibit from becoming overcrowded. Obviously, those concerns have dissipated. But the benefits are so significant that this trend has endured, and it’s easy to see why. First and foremost, enclosed exhibits elicit a sense of exclusivity and intrigue – which can be a double-edged sword. But used correctly, it can also be an extremely powerful tactic.


If you have products that you don’t want ogled by the masses, an enclosed exhibit can help you suss out the tirekickers from your target audience, incurring a sort of self-select process that results in undesirable attendees opting out of your experience. Some enclosed exhibits even go so far as to use reception desks and narrow egresses to create an invite-only kind of vibe that caters exclusively to existing clients and targeted prospects. Others look to enclosed exhibits to create truly immersive spaces within which they need not compete with other distractions – and exhibits – on the show floor.


An additional benefit of enclosed exhibits is that they convey a sense of permanence and stability that is often difficult to obtain with temporary exhibitry. And in the wake of COVID, the Great Recession, and other economic setbacks, exhibit trends have always favored that kind of bold, enduring permanence over the more ephemeral, open-air vibe of booths that are open on all four sides.


Trend 5: Sheer Fabrics

Sheer fabrics and translucent materials allow exhibitors to create semi-enclosed spaces without the drawbacks associated with diminished sightlines. Plus, it enables passersby a glimpse inside, which can help them determine whether or not they want to enter, thereby avoiding the issue of having to make that choice simply based on the mystery of an interior that you can’t see from the aisle. Sheer fabrics also allow you to delineate different zones or spaces within an exhibit without obstructing sightlines through your space, offering tantalizing glimpses of different displays and activations.


Another benefit of sheer or translucent fabrics, in particular, is that they allow you to create structure and volume without adding weight and heavy exhibitry. Additionally, sheer fabrics absolutely come to life with the addition of two earlier trends: projection and/or theatrical lighting. But this trend isn’t limited to fabric. Incorporating translucent panels, translucent screens, and even translucent films can create a similar effect that adds a sense of depth and dimension which is often sacrificed when hard-walled elements are incorporated in their place.


Trend 6: Matte Black Finishes

The complete opposite of airy and transparent, our next trend is matte-black fabrics and finishes. These highly opaque materials might seem like a random addition after extolling the benefits of sheer alternatives, but there’s a reason behind this trend. For one, there is a constant cyclical trend between two factors at play here: white versus black, and glossy versus matte. If you think about how the Apple store inspired a slew of glossy white surfaces and sleek, almost reflective finishes, you have an idea of what I’m talking about.


While that cycle will continuously be shifting back and forth every few years, this trend is once again driven by tech … as well as economics. As discussed before, permanence and stability are still important attributes to businesses in the long wake of COVID and amid any economic uncertainty. Matte black walls and finishes tend to imbue a space with more of a weightiness and a look of permanent structures versus temporary, more ephemeral alternatives. Additionally, the ever-growing popularity of theatrical lighting and AV seems to be nudging this trend forward and adding fuel to the fire, because of the way lighting pops against dark backgrounds, and how that luminance stands out when placed on or against matte finishes.


In other words, if you’re investing a ton of money into large-scale multimedia and high-quality content, you want to maximize its impact … and a matte-black palette can help you do just that.


Trend 7: Natural Materials

The trend toward natural materials isn’t surprising, given the rising interest in wellness and sustainability – especially amid reports that simply spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health. But this trend can take a number of forms, including greenery of course, but also unfinished surfaces such as raw wood and even exposed concrete which, while more on the industrial side, still applies.


Exposed concrete flooring was originally driven by a misguided attempt to make trade shows safer by removing aisle carpeting. Or at least that was the story we were told. In all honesty, most show organizers were more interested in cutting that line item out of their budgets amid falling attendance and exhibit-space revenues. But when aisle carpet went out the window, many exhibitors followed suit. And after realizing that they, too, could sidestep that expense, it became an acceptable design choice that is still very popular today. To dress up what was once considered an eyesore, designers are incorporating vinyl graphics and projection to concrete and concrete-like finishes.


Unfinished wood is also a popular choice for displays and exhibit elements. That raw, exposed finish offers exhibitors an opportunity to worry less about substrates and laminates while simultaneously lending a natural, arguably sustainable, vibe to their spaces. The idea is to add a sense of refined rustic naturalism to the experience. But the bigger trend here, and the one I suspect will have the longest shelf life, is incorporating greenery, moss, plants, and faux-grass flooring into exhibits to bring the outdoors inside.


Trend 8: High-Touch Activations

Driven largely by the desire to increase engagement and get visitors hands-on with exhibitors’ products and services, high-touch activations are also driven, in part, by COVID in the sense that we went from having to avoid (or constantly sanitize) previously ubiquitous touchscreens. Now, incorporating touch into the exhibit experience is once again on the table and brings some definite benefits along with it.  But touch isn’t limited to touch screens. Many exhibitors are going with low- to no-tech approaches that require guests to get tactile. We know the sense of touch activates parts of our brains (and memories) that other senses do not and cannot, increasing retention of messages and solidifying experiences in our memories.


In addition to traditional touchscreen applications, many exhibitors are incorporating 3D elements, such as products or three-dimensional icons, that guests have to select, pick up, and place on the screen in order to activate content, adding an even more tactile component to an otherwise digital experience. Others, some driven by adaptations caused by COVID-19, have traded traditional touchscreens for gesture-recognition engagements that require attendees to move their arms in order to play a game or navigate on-screen content. Either way, if you get attendees to engage physically with your stand, you’re on the right path.


Trend 9: High-Tech Activations

When Jim Gilmore and Joe Pine wrote “The Experience Economy” 20 years ago, I’m not sure even they could have imagined just how experiential our world would get, as evidenced by the popularity of fully immersive environments like Meow Wolf and the Van Gogh Experience. What that means for marketers is that the bar has been raised in terms of what is and is not considered truly experiential. At its most basic level, experiences have been largely defined by video games and the increasing immersion made possible via haptics, surround sound, curved screens, and more. But another driving force is the Disneyfication of our lives. We expect a certain degree of experience from everything, including product demos, theater experiences, etc.


In many cases that takes the form of immersive spaces that quite literally surround us and make us part of the action. When it comes to theatrical presentations, so-called 4D theater experiences now incorporate scent, wind machines, kinetic seating, and much more. This is a trend we started noticing at Expo 2010 in Beijing and have watched spread at major experiential events and world expos ever since, in Korea, Milan, Dubai, and even Kazakhstan. In this case, Walmart’s pavilion at CES took guests on a 4D journey from field to factory and retail to real life.


In SK Telecom’s exhibit, an immersive LED tunnel told the story of the company’s plans for a fully sustainable and eco-friendly future, complete with a ride on a roller-coaster-like track. It doesn’t get much more immersive than that. Other exhibitors fused virtual reality technology with more traditional amusement park-style rides to up the experiential ante in their in-booth experiences. And to outdo itself, SK offered up an incredible, immersive ride that sent guests flying through a futuristic cityscape and underscored the company’s key messages surrounding AI and air mobility.


If you’re not quite ready to build a Disney-worthy ride in your space, one way to heighten a sense of immersion is to consider interactive flooring, executed using the same kind of projection we discussed earlier. This can make a pretty standard space become an immersive experience without having to erect an entire theme park on the show floor.

And if you really want to stay on the cutting edge, new haptic flooring technology can make the ground itself respond to footsteps while mimicking the feeling you’d sense if actually walking in various environments – letting guests feel what it’s like to step through puddles, step atop raised surfaces, kick projected debris, etc. This is likely the next evolution of things like Meow Wolf and Van Gogh, and I suspect we’ll see more applications of haptic flooring at Expo 2025 in Japan next year.


Trend 10: Robotics

Finally, our last trend is robotics, driven largely by the increasing interest in AI and autonomous technology. While some could easily see robotics as a fad, it has demonstrated incredible staying power. And advancements in technology have always provided the kind of wow factor that gets attendees talking and keeps them coming back for more. Robotic arms, in particular, have proven very popular as eye-catching elements. And I’ve seen robots play chess, go head-to-head with human competitors in fast-paced games of ping pong, and brew a customized cocktail – and every time it attracts a crowd and gets people to take out their cellphones and post videos to social media. So whether you’re incorporating it as a gimmicky traffic builder or a strategic tactic, it’s likely to attract attention, which can be a boon for an exhibitor looking for brand awareness and a large quantity of leads.


In conclusion, I do want to caution you that if appearing trendy and on the cutting edge is important to you, don’t put all your exhibiting eggs in one trendy basket. The best booths, and the ones that have the tendency to have a much longer shelf life, incorporate multiple trends and layer them one on top of another, to create something that’s undeniably unique and absolutely on trend!

 


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