Trade show organizers have a problem, said Mickey McManus, president and CEO of MAYA Design, to the more 180 people who gathered at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center last week for the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum one-day program. The problem is that, “we don’t know how to decide what’s arbitrary and what’s important to attendees and exhibitors,” he said. A former exhibit designer and integrated marketing executive, McManus said that trade show organizers tend to be addicted to their work, which makes them rely on what they think will work as opposed to what is best for the user experience. So he called for an intervention.

“It’s all about paying attention to users,” he said, giving as an example a very elaborate exhibit he designed for a pharmaceutical company that made products for people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Included in the exhibit were virtual-reality goggles, which, when worn, showed physicians what the world looks like to those who have schizophrenia. Cool idea, but the video that was supposed to spur attendees to pick up the goggles by showing the world from the perspective of a person with schizophrenia didn’t work—no one picked them up. “That night, we changed the video to a patient talking about his experience instead of the virtual-reality view, and we had lines the next day.” Ask your attendees and exhibitors what their concerns are, then start designing the event. In short, he said, “Turn the ‘also ran’ exhibition and conference industry into a living laboratory for customer innovation.”

After McManus’ keynote, attendees were riveted by a panel discussion of some mega-trends, such as the rise of corporate events and their potential effect on exhibitions; how the trend toward virtual learning and purchasing for generations X and Y might play out for the future of trade shows; and how the rise of China as an important player in global exhibitions could affect U.S. shows in the next 10 years.

A panel composed of officials from the Office of Travel and Tourism; Homeland Security; and Visa Service, Bureau of Consular Affairs with the U.S. Department of State addressed global convention attendance trends and how recent U.S. security procedures are affecting international business travel. For example, despite perceptions to the contrary, U.S. visa applications are actually up 5 percent worldwide in 2006 over 2005, and total visa issuance is up 8 percent.

Other sessions included a panel of exhibitors who explained what they liked—and didn’t like—about their exhibiting experiences; and case studies on using cutting-edge technologies like virtual trade shows and video analysis of attendee traffic patterns.

Look for more from the ECEF in an upcoming issue of Association Meetings.