The Exhibition Hall: Past, Present and Future

May 21, 2019

As I sit here at another pharma conference, I start to reflect on how they have changed over the years.

Back in 2004 I joined an agency that produced exhibition stands/booths for pharmaceutical clients. The beginning of the following year was my first taste of how a booth is designed and run; this was an industry I wasn’t familiar with when I joined. The stand we had built was around 400m2 and had three brands running across it. We had absolutely filled this with interactive technology. Each brand had multiple game stations and six 42” plasma screens with rolling content, all of which we had developed in-house, to educate the delegates on how that particular drug worked in a gamified way.

What I hadn’t realised was how much stuff was being used as giveaways. There were small hand-held digital video cameras, laser pointers, bags, pens, Post-it note pads — you name it, we were probably giving it away. All the games had a high score leaderboard, and if you were at the top of it at the end of the day you could collect one of the more lucrative prizes. (Before you get too excited, this was 2005, so the digital cameras had a whopping two megapixels — yes, two megapixels — which was a real game changer back then.)

Over the three days the stand was always packed. At the breaks it was hard to move from your current position. Delegates would strip you of all the pens and bags you were carrying before you had even made it out of the store room. They came in their droves to play the games, get high scores on the leaderboard for a chance to win to the main prize, and collect as much of the giveaways as they could carry or stuff into a tote bag.

Our client wasn’t the only one doing this — their competitors were all doing the same. The hall was filled with pharma companies, big and small, all trying to sell their products to the prospective customer. It was all about who could attract the most delegates with the most attractive interactive technology, and then send them on their way with as much branded merchandise as possible.

One thing I had noticed is the device companies were all pushed to the outside walls with little pop ups exhibiting their products, trying desperately to be noticed.

For the next few years, we as a company started really pushing what was possible with technology. We hacked Wii controllers, Xbox cameras and-adapted PlayStation steering wheels to name but a few, all to create bespoke, mind-blowing attracts for our clients.

Fast forward to 2019. The exhibition hall, in my opinion, is a very different place. The reason is compliance.

These big pharma companies are struggling to attract delegates onto their booths. Once the games, the giveaways and the pens, once known as the doctor’s kryptonite, had been removed, there just wasn’t the draw into the hall anymore.

It seems that the only option they have left is to use large LED displays to promote their products. Yes, there are a few stands that are using VR and AR, but again they are restricted. These attracts must be educational and not a game or content that is rewarded with a prize.

A few of the big Pharma companies have decided against attending these shows as there isn’t the return on investment for them that there used to be. Some have decided to invest more money and time in the symposium and then have only a small presence in the exhibition hall.

On the flip side, the device companies have benefitted from this situation. It has allowed them to have the bigger spaces and a greater presence and at some shows, and they can still give away luxury prizes because they don’t have the same restrictions as pharma.1

So my question is, what can these pharma companies do now to entice the delegates back into the hall and onto their booths? Or are we going to see them remove the booth altogether and just run their workshops independently?


1. Association of British HealthTech Industries. Code of Ethical Business Practice, Chapter 9 A48. July 2018. Available here

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