Evolving Exhibitions


The past two years have seen a transformation in the role that exhibition space plays at association conferences. Like every other aspect of the industry, people are rethinking meeting design and trying to ensure that the right balance is provided to give delegates an incredible experience and to give commercial partners the best possible engagement opportunities. Once confined to physical spaces with booths and banners, exhibition spaces have evolved into dynamic hubs of collaboration and engagement. To explore the rapidly changing environment, we sat down with CPI’s Commercial Director Colm O’Grady to discuss what Associations should be paying attention to and what to expect in the coming years.


Colm O’Grady

Commercial Director

Colm, you’ve been the Commercial Director for CPI for over a decade, what has changed so dramatically over the past couple of years?

I think there was an evolution happening in the Commercial Space where sponsors and exhibitors were looking for a greater return on investment when deciding to have a presence at Conferences. Covid then accelerated that issue and our Conferences have had to look at innovative ways to deliver for our partners. Budgets were being assessed more internally and there was an increased demand for value for money, and rightfully so. Company’s are spending a lot of money to exhibit and for Association’s to build sustainable events they need to ensure that they are delivering for Corporates so that they come back again and again.

Do Partners know what they want yet?

It’s a good question, and in truth some do but many don’t. But that’s our responsibility as a PCO to work with our Associations and venues to see what can be delivered and then bring our partners on the journey of what they can achieve. I guess to put it simply, a lot of sponsors in particular know what they don’t want, which is the traditional name on a screen and exhibition space and instead are looking at ways to be a part of the Conference itself and the story that is being told at it. That is a balance we work very closely with our clients and partners to navigate as we have to protect the integrity of the content and yet give important commercial partners an opportunity to create real engagement.

Can you give an example of how this can work?

Sure. One Young World in Belfast in October 2023, is a really tangible example. The event is aimed at future leaders in their twenties who all come together to discuss key social issues and how collectively the delegates can help shape change for the future. When looking at social impact, you really have to create opportunities that fit the narrative of the event and you have to work with partners who have credibility to be involved in the space.

A simple concept that caught people’s attention and fit the event so well was that we worked with local artists in Belfast to create bespoke pieces of art that told the story of both social impact and Belfast. It was a great way of connecting the host destination with the event inside the ICC Belfast. Every partner, exhibited artwork on their stand and the artwork was then auctioned off to raise money to support social impact within the community. Additionally all of the stands were sustainable and made from container parts which fit closely with One Young World’s own mission.

The concept allowed us connect the exhibition area to Belfast and it also was a brilliant conversation starter that brought delegates to our partners, who then had an authentic story about their own social stories to share. You can see some of the amazing art in the video below.

That’s cool for a big event, what can smaller Associations look at to change their exhibition?

I think the biggest thing for all Associations regardless of size is to stop looking at the Exhibition Space in isolation from the rest of the event. It’s no longer the case that partners are happy to have a stand and hope people come to them during a break. We have to find authentic ways where partners can add value and improve the delegate experience. Delivering impact for exhibitors can be as simple as ensuring that the programme doesn’t try to jam too much content in and there’s no time for people to visit the exhibition or it can be more deliberate with ideas for ensuring delegates want to visit stands. We are working with some clients for later this year and next year on some exciting new ideas that will hopefully lead to really positive interactions between delegates and partners.

Do Partners need to evolve too?

Absolutely, and we are seeing that a lot at the moment. A basic shell scheme and pull up banner doesn’t grab attention and partners have to tell their own story of why they are worth a delegates time and attention. Ultimately when we get Associations and partners working together to deliver an amazing experience, that’s when everyone wins.

What would your last piece of advice be for Associations Colm?
For me it’s simple we need to get a clear understanding of the role Associations want partners to play in their event. There’s an education piece there to understand how partners can help beyond financial terms. Once we work with Associations to get that clarity then it’s a simple case of developing a clear prospectus and having open and honest conversations to set expectations. We’re seeing the success with some of our repeat clients who’s sponsorship revenue is growing and everyone is benefiting from an improved relationship.

What's Next?

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