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May 17, 2018

Sub-Saharan Africa: Trends in Exhibition Stand Design

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The biggest change in recent years within the exhibition stand design industry has been a laser-like focus on providing sustainable solutions. “’Green’ has become a buzzword for sustainable, safe, energy efficient and/or economic’ […] Essentially sustainability just means a better planning,” says Gary Van der Watt of Resource Design.

Justin Hawes, of Scan Display, has also noticed a shift in client and supplier expectations: “The use of fabric on stands is a trend that continues to grow, both internationally and in South Africa. This is because it has a number of benefits, such as: lower long-term costs due to its suitability for re-use and lower transport costs […] Another big trend we are seeing around the world and at home is the raw (untreated) wood look, which taps into a broader trend of using natural materials and being more sustainable.”

The move towards growing sustainability has been on show at the Exhibition Stand Awards for most of the recently hosted major events in South Africa; including Meetings Africa, Africa Travel Indaba and Africa World Travel Mart. Resource Design, a company explicitly focused on creating sustainable stands and minimising environmental impact, emerged victorious at all three. According Van der Watt, Resource Design’s director, this fits in neatly with a broader international movement. “[The] international trend is to look beyond green ‘’icing’’ and address bulk use of materials, logistics, labour, source of materials, repurposing, reuse and recycling,” he says.

Hawes gives a particular example of his company’s focus on reusing long-term, sustainable solutions. “[At Meetings Africa we] built [the moveable infrastructure] with raw wood frames, fitted with beautiful shweshwe and Venda fabric (rather than printing branding or graphics that would date). What I love[d] about this approach is that we have been able to incorporate a lot of this same stock at Africa’s Travel Indaba – creating a truly sustainable solution, because of its ongoing re-usability,” says Hawes. This was a creative solution to what easily could have been a difficult task – the layout at Meetings Africa required seven major shifts in the three days of the event. It featured a hosted buyers’ area, a sustainability village, a conference venue, and spaces for cocktails and smaller events.

While the growing ‘greening’ movement described above definitely falls in line with global trends and expectations, focusing too much on international movements may be misplaced. “We mistakenly look to international influence to guide local sustainability. Local is more than ‘’lekka’’ – it’s critical to sustainability: as South Africans we have a misplaced concept that some mystical ‘’foreign’’ invention will magically free us from our wasteful practice[s]. We forget that most sustainable solutions have originated in the countries that they work best in,” cautions Van der Watt. It is therefore vital for local designers and suppliers to think more deeply and carefully about ways they can reduce their environmental impact.

Van der Watt cites one particular example where South Africa is, in fact, leading the eventing industry in matters of sustainability. “Xanita (a local product) is recognised as a world benchmark [for sustainability]. Although successfully used in 26 countries internationally it can never be as successful as what it is in SA – as this is where it is born, it has short logistics lines, local labour is well suited to use it, there is an [easily] available recycling avenue,” he says. It remains imperative for more examples like this to be found – and for South African solutions to be presented in answer to South African challenges.

But while ‘greening’ events is a major focus amongst event organisers, clients and exhibition stand designers, it is not the only shift that’s taken place in the industry. “In our experience, international trends in our industry are fully customer focused on how attendees experience innovation and process improvement, enabled by technology. Customer centric experience (CCX) is transforming businesses globally and technology is therefore, required to be integrated, user-oriented and highly effective,” says Gill Gibbs of ConCept G Exhibitions and Events.

In response to expectations around customer experiences, exhibition stand suppliers are increasingly integrating technology into their designs. “Where budget permits, extended reality (XR) is sought after,” she adds. XR includes Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Virtuality (AV). Gibbs explains: “This is an entire spectrum from "the complete real" to "the complete virtual", an extension of human experiences especially relating to the senses of existence (represented by VR) and the acquisition of cognition (represented by AR). Taking all technologies into account, the most important element of a project is to understand the attendee and how they want to interact with technology.”

No matter what shifts take place in the industry or what trends are in vogue, South Africa’s top exhibition stand designers are ready to tackle them. “Project excellence is achieved not only through thorough planning and co-ordination, it is about the wealth of experience that encompasses the design, planning, implementation and realisation teams,” says Gibbs. This sort of expertise and attention to detail has allowed Gibbs and her team to succeed on massively challenging projects such as the Robertson’s Reinvention Kitchen – a pop-up restaurant that changed theme daily over five days, and required ConCept G Exhibitions and Events to changeover themes every night of the event. Rising to the challenge paid off; at the EIA Awards Evening in January 2018, they won the category prize for Memorable Events.

Of course, it’s not just about individual companies or one-off successes. Looking to the future, Hawes says: “We are currently involved in a number of projects in Rwanda, Mauritius and Kenya. They are exciting as I feel that we are introducing lots of new ideas to the rest of Africa. It is wonderful to see “Africa rising”!

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