I just finished reading The Brain Drain by @StantonTravis in @Exhibitor Magazine, and, while I agree wholeheartedly with the observation, I think it goes deeper that lower budgets and smaller staffs. In the column, Travis also says; "After years of doing more with less, exhibit professionals' creativity has been sapped, and many shows have been reduced to glorified flea markets." I agree that creativity has been sapped, and the belt tightening may be a factor, but I don't think it is entirely the fault of "doing more with less", nor is it a recent recession generated malady. I remember about 20 years ago when someone asked my Father (who was in the exhibit business for 50+ years) what the most negative trend was he had seen, and he pointed out that when he started out, his client was not only much higher up the decision chain and had budget authority, but was also well versed in all the aspects of the process, both creative and construction. As he put it "all my Clients used to have MFAs and most did painting or sculpture as a hobby, and now they have MBAs and move numbers around on a spreadsheet for fun". So, the lack of understanding of creativity and design management isn't a new phenomenon. Causation and correlation are two different things, and I personally think the "belt tightening" justification is more excuse than reason. Smaller staffs and smaller budgets don't make us suck as much as they give us an cover story.
As for the 'flea market' characterizations, I could not agree more. And most of this comes from people who think that event "creativity" is 'theme' based'. I hate the word 'theme' because most people that choose a theme don't necessarily use it to reinforce the exhibitor's brand. They act more like they are planning a child's birthday party. They might as well be renting a pony and getting all the attendees little cowboy hats and cap guns. At Exhibitor 2014, while Skyline's WIndscape Exhibits aren't exactly a bouncy castle, some exhibitors came pretty damn close to having face-painting.
I have seen the entire spectrum of bad theme based exhibits. Like the company that wants to do a "tropical theme" and rent some palm trees and surf boards and serve drinks in coconuts because the boss loves Tommy Bahama Shirts and sees it as a way for everyone to expense 4 or 5 of them each for booth-wear. Or having the booth staffers wear tie dye and peace sign medallions and have the graphics all look like 60's black light posters, with the word 'groovy' overly used. I even read an article recently that suggested that an exhibit could recreate a sidewalk cafe because it would be really cool to put the product price list on little table tents on the cafe tables. This is justifiable maybe, just maybe, if you are selling coffee or biscotti or barrista supplies. But if the connection is any more tangential than that it makes absolutely no sense, and is the result of a total absence of creativity and a colossal waste of budget.
On the other hand, there was a great example of a 'theme' (your word, certainly not mine) based approach by Deckel & Moneypenny, a concept that won Best New Exhibitor at Exhibitor Show 2014. Their exhibit, a small inline, wasn't a cupcake themed exhibit. They instead used cupcakes as a metaphor for what their strengths are, and how they dovetail with the client's needs, calling the overlap in that tasty Venn Diagram 'the sweet spot' that makes them a good fit for certain potential clients. Most importantly, the "We're Sorry, We Didn't Bring Enough For Everybody" pointed out that they were looking for Clients that were a good fit, that they could really do some solid work for, and create a long lasting relationship that was mutually beneficial. Further, that they weren't looking to be a vendor, but a trusted partner that could become an integral part of the Client's marketing programs going forward.
The attendee could use different toppings to customize their cupcakes while they engaged with a booth staffer and described their program and their goals. The decorating was a metaphor for the customizing that makes each exhibit different, and that each exhibitors purpose and needs are truly unique. The toppings and sprinkles represent the tools in Deckel & Moneypenny's bag of tricks that can be used in different and appropriate ways to create a successful exhibit. Not only that, but the box that the finished cupcake went into was just big enough not to fit in a literature tote bag, so they attendee carried it, and the label on the box pointed back to their space so everyone that the cupcake toting ambassador interacted with was directed back to them. Add to that the preshow promotions that created curiosity (it's a fact that advertising copy that starts with an apology is almost guaranteed to be read) and made attendees put them on their 'must see' list at the show, the preshow website and social media exposure to reinforce that (and provide a shareable channel). Lastly, for after the show, the clever post show video that took all the boring, perfunctory bullet points about a company that too many exhibitors use to confuse their message and clutter their pitch in the exhibit and delivered them back to the Client in a tongue in cheek, but no less sincere method that served to greatly increase memorability.
In addition Steve Deckel, the Design Director at Deckel & Moneypenny Exhibits, and Leslie Word did a session called 'Smaller Can Be Better: How You Really Can Do More With Less' that reinforced the skill they were exhibiting on the show floor.
It made me recall the exhibit Steve did at the beginning of the economic downturn a half a dozen years ago where they were communicating how they could shrink costs for the unproductive parts of a Client's program and used Shrinky Dinks (remember those?). They discussed the problem areas of the budget and had the client draw them on the film and, while it was baking in the little oven, discussed what they could do for the Client. After a few minutes the film, now a fraction of it's original size, came out of the oven with all those budget problems much smaller than before. The film was put in a nice gift box, with some company information, and sealed with a sticker with the tag line for the campaign on it, giving the attendee a 'show and tell' object to use to explain the concepts back at the office to management. An incredibly effective metaphor for shrinking waste in a budget using an children's toy. I swear, these Deckel & Moneypenny folks can do a better job communicating a message with a 10 x 10 exhibit than a lot of exhibit houses (and 'creative' Clients) can do with 1200 square feet.
Contrast this with what I would imagine the typical decision process for a 'cupcake themed' exhibit would be like. Picture a handful of marketing folks from an exhibiting company (and probably some other department heads as well, since when it comes time to build a new exhibit it seems like everyone thinks it would be fun to join in) trying to be clever and not coming up with much when suddenly, viola, a brainstorm;
"Hey, I saw this cool show on cable called Cupcake Wars where they made these great designer cupcakes".
"Yeah? What about them?"
"Well, I bet if we gave them out people would stop at our exhibit."
"Where would we get them?"
"Oh, they are really trendy. They have them all over. Every Woman who quits her corporate job to spend more time with the kids yet do something meaningful and rewarding starts one. I bet there's half a dozen in the show city where we could get them."
"Really? I have never seen them."
"There's a place not far from here where we could try them out."
"Hmmm, how about we all go over after this meeting to do some 'research' (chuckle chuckle)."
"OK, sounds good. Anyone have another idea? No? Well then, sounds like a plan."
I would posit that a lot of the lack of creativity is a byproduct of consensus driven decision making. And, as I always say, "consensus is the stupid decision normally smart people make because they are in a hurry to end the meeting and get to lunch".