Event Navigation and Wayfinding: Myth Busting Our Way to Success

May 17, 2023

Ade Allenby

Ade Allenby is an event technology specialist and owner of Allenby Advisory, which helps event organizers and suppliers develop, sell and implement new value propositions through digital and event technology. His background is in digital product management, having worked for 10 years in the telecoms industry managing the digital transformation of sales, marketing and service functions. Allenby joined the events industry in 2015, working for Reed Exhibitions (RX Global) as global head of digital innovation.

Navigating a trade show can be a daunting experience for visitors, as the repetitive grid layout, the lack of reference points and the sheer size of events can make it hard to find your way especially when there are multiple halls.

Post-event surveys often capture verbatim feedback from visitors that cite navigation as a leading source of dissatisfaction with the event experience.

A key obstacle for event organizers in solving this problem is that we are prone to thinking about the visitor journey in the way we want it to happen and overlook the idiosyncrasies of what attending an event can actually be like. For instance:

What we want visitors to do but what they mostly don’t do:

  • Meticulously plan a route around the event, ensuring they visit everything they are interested in.
  • Work out how long it is going to take them to get from meeting to meeting based on the distance between exhibitors.
  • Remember when content sessions are being held and at what time when they are out browsing the show floor.
  • Familiarize themselves with the floor plan on a “you are here” board to find a specific exhibitor, then remember it for their next meeting.
  • Study the layout of the hall and stand numbering system to find their way.

What visitors actually do (we’ve all been there!):

  • Think about where their first meeting is located but only the moment they get issued their badge.
  • Miss meetings and content sessions they wanted to attend because they got distracted on the show floor and had no idea how long it was going to take to find the exhibitor, theater or networking lounge.
  • Forget to pick up a show guide or worse, get to the entrance to find they are all gone.
  • Consult the “you are here” board in a cursory fashion to find a certain exhibitor but then quickly forget the route as soon as they are on the show floor.
  • Get confused when booths aren’t numbered sequentially and many stands don’t show booth numbers.

These difficulties are compounded by the fact that most of us have largely outsourced navigation in our everyday lives to our smartphones and the artificial intelligence that can help us pick the best route to the best-rated restaurant, avoiding the worst of the traffic. So orienting ourselves in an unfamiliar environment using a paper-based map is, to many, a lost art.

Therefore it seems obvious that providing an experience that mimics what the smartphone provides, specifically for inside a trade show venue, would deliver the optimal experience. The challenge is that GPS doesn’t work inside an event hall, and the temporary nature of exhibitor booths isn’t shown on Google and Apple maps anyway. So you need a solution that compensates for this (in essence an interactive floor plan with indoor positioning, such as the combined solution from ExpoFP and Crowd Connected, among others).

What your visitors need is:

  • A floor plan that can easily be accessed on a smartphone and has been specifically designed for visitor way-finding (not an exhibitor space allocation plan created by operations for contractors to build the show).
  • Easy ways to find this digital floor plan. For example, QR codes placed around the show and a bold button link on your homepage on the days of the show.
  • Search and routing, which enables any show component and venue facility to be found.
  • Overlaid on the digital floor plan, the familiar blue dot showing current location, telling you precisely where you are the moment you realize you need to be somewhere else.
  • Real-time location updated as you move about, so you can quickly see that you have made a wrong turn, or decide to take a stop along the route.
  • Reminders about meetings and speaker sessions saved to your calendar that alert you in time to get there (and suggest the best route).

Of course, it’s always helpful to have highly visible analog directional signage, however good your digital wayfinding solution is. This might include overhead aisle numbering, consistent booth number display, sequential/logical booth numbering (this is far from the case at too many shows!) and high-level signage for theaters, meeting spaces, washrooms and food outlets. However, the budget for this can often be trimmed, but just be aware of the cost of lost and confused visitors reflected in visitor and exhibitor NPS (net promoter scores) and retention rates.

Overall, navigation at your event should be considered as much an investment as marketing your event. It is fundamental to ensuring positive outcomes for visitors and exhibitors. The economic return in your marketing budget will go further next year as retention rates increase.

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