Virtual and augmented reality continues to make big waves in marketing, thanks to its positive effect on consumer engagement.

Expos and trade fairs offer brands the perfect opportunity to get their name out there and pull in new customers. The catch? There are often hundreds of exhibitors competing for attention, meaning standing out is imperative.

Splashing cash on sprawling booth spaces and flashy displays is one way to catch eyes. But making use of innovative tech to create unique, immersive experiences that can be taken on an expo tour is both cost-efficient – and cooler!

So what is virtual reality and how does it differ to augmented reality? Put simply, virtual reality fully immerses you into computer-generated surroundings, while augmented reality layers computer-generated images over real life. For example, flight simulators use virtual reality, while Pokémon GO is an augmented reality game.

Not techy? Don’t panic. There are whizz-kids who can help you incorporate VR or AR into your next expo, some of whom Eventbrite caught up with for their tips.

Sell your experiential product with a VR taster

Student scuba diving company Scubajam recently used a cutting-edge VR experience created by digital tech agency Digital Catapult to offer students at a freshers’ fair a taster of what it’s like to swim with tropical fish.

“We had people queuing up at our stall to put the headset on,” says Scubajam founder Paul Kennedy. “They got to see whales, turtles, dolphins, all this crazy stuff.”

The more you can do to ramp up the realism, the better. Paul brought his gear along so the students could try on the tanks and get a sense of what scuba diving is like physically as well as visually.

“It can be tricky when your product is an experience as it’s obviously harder to show people, but this was the best way to simulate a scuba diving tour without the ocean!”

Go one step further and add hardware for a simulator effect. Hiking boot brand Merrel famously created an adrenalin-filled immersive hiking experience through the Dolomites using a VR headset, a shaking bridge and a motion capture system, so that customers could ‘test out’ their shoes without leaving the expo booth.

Rake in sponsorship with an augmented reality treasure hunt

Have a play with game-changing mobile app Seek, which lets you create augmented reality treasure hunts around any space.

Expo managers should spot a strong sponsorship opportunity here. Consider selling virtual chests to your exhibitors and hiding them throughout the arena. Once attendeees find and open these chests, the app directs them to the exhibitor’s stand to collect a real life prize, giving brand ambassadors the chance to engage potential new consumers.

Of course, individual exhibitors can create treasure hunts too – a surefire way to generate buzz!

Infuse your VR experience with scent (yes, really!)

Perfumer and olfactory academic Harry Sherwood creates bespoke scents for brands and, working with perfumer Sarah McCartney, scented the interactive launch of Google’s Pixel 2 smartphone. He recently designed and developed a novel type of wearable device that diffuses scents during VR experiences.

“People seem more willing to invest in a better VR headset than anything olfactory when actually, smell can be far more effective in achieving realism than marginally better graphics,” says Harry. “The scientific consensus is that odours are coloured by emotion and memory, meaning scent offers a level of immersion that can’t be achieved through other means. 

“For example, people are much more likely to remember and recall your brand or product if you pair a scent with your exhibition stand or VR experience.”

Pull in crowds with a VR gaming tournament

This summer, experiential marketing agency 2Heads harnessed VR on behalf of Airbus at Europe’s largest digital gaming show, Gamescom. The brief was to increase brand awareness among the young gaming demographic – the kind of people Airbus might wish to employ – and promote its inclusive ethos. 

2Heads created a heavily interactive stand in response. Visitors were given VR headsets, through which they could watch a professional, all-female gaming team compete live – and challenge them to a match. But Craig Wildman, the company’s global managing director, knew they had to do more.

“There is content overload at events like Gamescom so it’s hugely important to create an experience that resonates but also stands out from the noise,” he says, “To solve this problem and create real buzz and energy around our space, our team developed a series of ‘event hack’ moments. The whole Airbus stand had a takeover moment, with screens, sound and lighting being ‘hacked’. 

“Attendees were enlisted to help unlock the gaming screens by solving live clues and decoding encrypted messaging, before a giveaway of exclusive branded gear. These moments lasted only three minutes but resulted in crowd surges of up to 200 per cent.”

Design your expo from the attendee’s POV using VR demos

Wildman extols the advantages of using VR during the design and production of a promotional event. 

“2Heads was tasked with crafting meaningful experiences for Rolls-Royce across its global expo programme, but we needed a way of previewing the spaces ahead of events,” he says. “Our digital team created VR demos that helped us understand what the experience would be like from the point of view of an attendee. Using VR at this stage means we can continue to create interactive experiences that really resonate with our clients.”

Bring awesome future plans to life, virtually 

Got a kickass new product or property to show off that hasn’t been built yet? Instead of relying on the imaginations of expo attendees, help them visualise what’s coming with immersive tech.

Last year, global production studio Unit9 helped one of the world’s largest real estate developers, Emaar, bring ambitious plans for a futuristic Dubai mall to life using augmented reality. 

“Getting your message across at a promotional event is hard with so much competition,” says Marco Delvia, XR partnerships director at Unit9. “Video presentations, stewards or printed literature will only get you so far, which is where AR comes in.

“For Emaar’s expo, we set out to create a virtual mall to excite shoppers and adventurers with a taste of what’s to come. Guests could overlay iPads on predetermined markers on a life-sized blueprint to trigger various AR scenes. Each marker depicted a shopping experience that would happen at the mall, including shopping for perfume, food and fashion.

“There was nothing more thrilling than seeing guests’ faces light up as the AR mall was unveiled – and they couldn’t stop sharing this jaw-dropping experience across social media. While the physical mall will be a reality in a couple of years, guests were delighted to get a glimpse of what the future holds.”

For more great tips and tricks to help you stand out at expos and trade fairs, check out these brand activation ideas!

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