Best Practices for Exhibit Furnishings

Best Practices for Exhibit Furnishings

Furniture and decor can turn a good exhibit into a great one – if you give these often-overlooked elements the attention they deserve.

I feel like I say this about all areas of trade show exhibiting, but every component of your program serves a specific purpose that is just waiting to be optimized – and furnishings are no exception. Furniture and decor not only amplify the look and feel of your booth but also add to the functionality of the space. Since exhibit design starts with little more than a patch of bare concrete, these elements are important parts of the canvas that tells the story of your company, its unique personality and attributes, and how it’s different from competitors on the show floor.

Unfortunately, in the hustle leading up to a show, many exhibit managers are so focused on business-centric priorities that things as “frivolous” as the color of a chair, the style of a side table, and the addition of a couple accent lamps become afterthoughts – if they’re thought of at all. While I’ll admit I’ve never heard of a business deal being closed solely because a prospect liked the mid-century vibes of an exhibitor’s seating area, one can’t deny that the aesthetics of a space communicate a heck of a lot and can be a powerful tool for influencing perception. A metal folding chair sends a very different message from an upholstered wingback. And if you’re spending six or seven figures on an ultra-premium custom exhibit, why complement that investment with generic stools, chairs, and tables hastily selected from whatever source was the cheapest?

That said, don’t think that the topic of furnishings and decor only applies to marketers with large booths and large budgets. Which is more likely to catch your eye in a long aisle of 10-by-10s: the exhibitor with a bare-bones booth or the one with a few carefully chosen accessories – maybe a DIY product display or a vintage coffee table stocked with giveaways and literature – that give the space some personality? Precisely. The following are some tips to make your booth furnishings as effective and functional as possible.

Buy and rent strategically.

Buying your own furniture may initially seem like a great plan, but it’s likely going to add some items to your to-do list. After all, you’ll need to take everything back with you after the show, clean it, repair any damage, and repack it. So unless the items are foldable, lightweight, and purely for function, I generally recommend renting from your exhibit house or the show’s official provider. Additionally, if you rent directly from the general service contractor (GSC) or the show’s official supplier, you won’t need to pay for material handling or shipping, as the rental price is all-encompassing.

If being on trend is important to you, you’re also probably better off renting. Furniture, like flooring, is a great way to freshen up your exhibit without having to buy new properties or print new graphics. Rental providers are no different from retailers in that part of their job is to stay up-to-date on what’s in style. By renting, you’re putting the responsibility on the supplier to source the most modern trends, thus allowing you to focus on your marketing strategy.

However, there are times that you should buy instead of rent. Are you going to use a particular loveseat at 16 different shows? The cost per use will probably be lower if you purchase it. Do your company’s brand guidelines require a certain Pantone shade of orange? It will probably be difficult to find a rental option that’s a perfect match. Another route would be to purchase custom accent pieces, such as throw pillows or area rugs, in your corporate hue instead of laying out cash for bulky items.

Use furniture to integrate attention-grabbing color.

Most GSCs and rental companies offer catalogs of furniture options in a wide array of colors, giving you the opportunity to either bring focus to your exhibit – or help it fade into the background. I recently saw a basic black side chair in a show kit that cost $129.70 to rent. On the next page was a trendier, swankier red chair for $174.50. If you are spending $60,000 to get your exhibit onto a trade show floor, is saving $45 the smartest move when a pop of color would help set your booth apart from a sea of black seating and maybe, just maybe, compel a qualified lead to walk into your space? While I’m all for minding the bottom line and pinching pennies, there are times when not automatically rushing to the cheapest option is the better decision for your program. The Exhibit Company has several rental furniture options available.

Size matters.

Have you ever bought a piece of furniture on impulse only to get it home and discover it’s too big or too small for the room? Well, the same thing happens in exhibits all the time. It’s important to make sure that everything fits and that there is ample space so the booth is accessible to everyone. Many exhibitors are woefully negligent in remembering that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) applies to trade shows, so bear in mind that there should be at least 36 inches of clearance around seating areas. A good standard operating procedure is to add your furniture to your CAD drawings rather than just ordering it and hoping for the best.

Identify your optimal setup for in-booth theaters.

People value their personal space, and even more so now that face-to-face events are resuming after the pandemic. Getting too close for comfort has long been an issue when it comes to in-booth presentation areas. Some exhibitors swear that benches are the best option, and others claim that individual chairs are the only way to go because attendees are too wary of sharing a seat and will skip a demo rather than sit next to a stranger. Audience preferences no doubt vary by industry and the type of event, but my two cents is that chairs 1) take up a lot of room and 2) become easily disarranged. Bottom line: There isn’t a definitively right or wrong way to set up theatrical seating so long as you factor in accessibility.

Incorporate COVID-conscious options.

And speaking of postpandemic exhibiting, it may be best to make concessions when it comes to the materials you use. Attendees are likely going to be monitoring exhibitors’ cleaning practices and eager to see staffers wiping down frequently touched surfaces, e.g., tables, counters, armrests, etc. So while a reclaimed-wood table and a suede settee may look luxe and be on-brand for your company, these porous materials won’t react too well to disinfecting sprays or sanitizing wipes. For the time being, I suggest taking a practical approach and opting for acrylic, laminate, and vinyl, all of which can handle repeated cleaning. Just be sure to carefully read the labels of your cleaners to ensure they won’t damage the surfaces in question. And if you do rent upholstered furniture, ask the provider what sanitizing processes they use, as fabrics can be breeding grounds for germs.

Remember that less is usually more.

If you don’t want people to camp out in your booth for too long, you’ll want to limit the amount of seating that you offer and make sure that all furnishings serve a specific purpose. I have literally watched a man fall asleep on a couch in one of my client’s booths. It was pretty awkward to wake him up and ask him to move on, but after I did I realized the blame wasn’t entirely on him. After all, I created a seating area that was underutilized and didn’t have a clear function.

To keep people moving, you can cordon off meeting areas so that they are less accessible to casual passersby. If that feels a bit severe, other options include simply positioning your furniture deeper in your exhibit or having the backs of your seats face the aisle, making it far less likely that roving attendees will help themselves.

Consider adding some greenery.

A few plants and flowers will make your exhibit feel warmer and more welcoming while also covering up unsightly cables, bumps in the carpet, and mouseholes in your counters. Most large trade shows include a floral-rental company in their preferred supplier directories. These businesses rent plants for the duration of the show and sell floral arrangements. The benefit of renting plants through the official provider is that they are delivered to and removed from your space, and delivery is included in the price. You can certainly bring your own greenery, but unless you can carry them in, you’ll likely need to pay a material-handling fee. Artificial plants are another route many exhibitors take. Just make sure you select realistic-looking options and pack them carefully so delicate silk or plastic details aren’t damaged in transit.

Inject some personality with decor and props.

Whether we admit it not, who among us exhibit managers hasn’t, over the course of a long show, thought, “Gosh, everything here looks the same.” And if we’re thinking it, you can bet your bottom dollar that attendees are noticing it too.

Now, I fully recognize that if you’re a provider of heavy machinery or business-to-business financial services, you probably won’t be adding a lava lamp to your exhibit any time soon. But I firmly believe that in many industries there is room to infuse a bit of personality into your stand. By bringing in an unexpected prop or accessory, you’ll have something in your space that no one else has – and sometimes this unexpected piece becomes an easy icebreaker through which staffers can engage with attendees. The best part about this is that the item doesn’t need to be expensive to draw attention. Whether you find something cool at a big-box store or a garage sale, if it’s on-point with your brand and messaging, add it to your exhibit. What is the worst that can happen?

Keep your audience’s needs and wants in mind.

This tip applies to many things. For example, if your average attendee skews a bit older, choosing furniture that’s low to the ground will cause more frustration than comfort. If you’re offering in-booth hospitality, will you also provide high-top tables? And don’t forget about one of booth visitors’ top concerns: being able to charge their mobile devices.

Additionally, give some thought to your target audience’s preferences and what will make them feel welcome and at ease. For some, that may mean a sleek seat right out of a Design Within Reach catalog. For others, that may mean an overstuffed La-Z-Boy recliner – a seating option I once saw a savvy exhibitor employ at the National Hardware Show.

Furnishings can be a fun opportunity to make your exhibit your own and differentiate your business from others that aren’t doing unique things in their spaces. This is also one of the most flexible areas of your exhibiting program, as items can be swapped in and out as needed. As long as you focus on function and aesthetic without disregarding one or the other, you’ll be on the road to success.


Written by Betsy Earle, CTSM for Exhibitor Magazine
managing director and founder of Event Driven Solutions LLC. Earle obtained her MBA at the University of Miami and earned her Diamond-level CTSM designation in 2018.