For Michaela O’Connor Abrams, event design is not just about booth layouts, room setups, and decor. “It transcends aesthetics,” said Abrams, president at Dwell Media, San Francisco, and keynote speaker at the 2013 Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum on May 29 at the J.W. Marriott in Washington, D.C. “It’s fundamental to everything we do.” And now more than ever, design can make or break a meeting or event.

Design-Centric Consumers

Abrams should know. In just eight years she has grown the Dwell on Design trade show to more than 30,000 attendees by breaking the mold and tapping into a nation hungry for good design. It started with a magazine, Dwell. “We realized back in 2000 that the design-seeking community in this country wasn’t being terribly well served,” said Abrams, whose keynote address was streamed to an online audience. Not just architects, builders, and decorators, but anyone interested in design, including consumers.

Consumers today are more “design-centric” than in the past, especially the more affluent, according to Dwell Media’s New Face of Affluence survey. Abrams and her team took this into account when developing their event because design-centric consumers are extremely loyal to the brands that distinguish themselves with simple, clean, and functional design and messaging. “Sometimes the loudest and the junkiest get the best response, but that is starting to change.”

But design goes beyond the look and feel of the live experience, the branding, and the messaging—it’s the entire package.

As an example, she cited Virgin America Airlines as a company where good design is a central focus. It’s not just nonstop flights and cheap fares, but the entire experience—ordering food at the touch of a button, free entertainment screens at each seat, leather seats, and the purple lights in the cabin, among other things. It’s why she and others will go out of their way to fly the airline. She also pointed to Apple, noting that company’s technology, industrial design, logo, genius bars, and more combine to transform it from a computer company into a lifestyle brand.

And that is her goal with Dwell on Design—to make it “so personal, so on target to their needs, they know that whatever you do under that brand, they will follow.”

Pinterest Pavillion

Abrams sees social media and technology as essential to good design because it is such an integral part of the attendees’ life. “When brands use technology well, the attendee, the consumer, feels as if they have a relationship with you, that you listen to them, that they have a say in what you do,” she explained. “They need to feel that it’s one to one—that they are the one and only exhibitor or attendee—even if it’s a 50,000-person show.” Social media can help planners foster that relationship. “It’s not a platform to push messages out but to create the relationship that we know the attendee wants.”

Dwell has an exhibit at its upcoming show that incorporates social media into the live experience—the Pinterest Pavillion. It started with a “Pin to Win” competition in which attendees were asked to post their design entries to Pinterest and then Dwell judges selected winners in various categories and invited them to bring their designs to life at Dwell on Design at the Los Angeles Convention Center, June 21–23. In the Pinterest Pavillion, attendees will be able to walk through and experience the winning designs, then re-pin pictures to their own Pinterest boards. “This is one of the most important things we’ve done this year,” she said, as the buzz has accounted for a spike in early registrations and multiple sponsorships.

Right next to the Pinterest Pavillion will be a large social media pavilion where people can blog, tweet, and post.

The Dwell on Design show is but one episode in a continuing conversation Dwell Mediahas with its audience throughout the year—not a culminating event. “We work really hard to make sure that the community is in the center of everything that we do.” So Dwell keeps that relationship going through social media, magazines, and a number of smaller events.

“Interminable” Trade Show Rows   

Dwell listened to the customer when it designed the show. Based on feedback from customers, it did away with the typical trade show grid. Abrams says that walking “the interminable rows” is no longer what people want.Instead, Dwell on Design is immersive experience where the 400 exhibits, sessions, presentations, and food and beverage are all on the exhibition floor, which is divided into theme zones—Dwell Outdoor, the Tech Zone, Furniture, Kitchen and Bath, etc. While some of the show’s 96 sessions are in meetings rooms, most happen on stages in the exhibit hall. “We don’t send people down a long hallway; we keep them right there,” she said. Even the end-of-day cocktail receptions are on the floor.

The design has not only engaged the attendees, but also pleased the exhibitors because the attendees are on the show floor almost all of the time.

“Design, for us, touches absolutely everything,” said Abrams. And it’s been the reason for the success of its show.