It’s not often that you encounter a tradeshow that is perfectly designed to remove friction and enable business. The NAFEM Show is the leading commercial foodservice equipment and supplies show. More than 19,000 manufacturers, restaurant operators, chefs and more attended in Orlando for the first time since 2019. The hall was buzzing with business deals, equipment demonstrations, and lots of handshakes and hugs. What really stood out to me was that every touchpoint had been carefully crafted to deliver a frictionless “don’t make me think” experience.
Buffy Levy, Event Director at Smithbucklin, led the tradeshow design effort and has been managing the show for more than 25 years. I spoke with Buffy to learn more about her approach and how she and her team work with NAFEM to create the ideal attendee experience.
Levy credits the success to taking the time to walk in the attendees’ shoes. She, along with her team, conduct thorough site visits where they actively seek out the ways that the audience will encounter the different event components. At every step of the way, they are asking what someone needs to see, and what action do they need to take to accomplish what they want.
They have also fostered a general culture of innovation and iteration surrounding the show. Levy and her team watch how attendees move through the show each year and continually adjust to remove sticking points. A simple, yet highly impactful, example of this is the badge pick-up area.
When you walk into the venue the first thing you see is a giant arrow that says Badge Pick-Up pointing to the registration area. The registration area itself has large column wraps that are also labeled Badge Pick-Up. Levy shared that these signs used to read Registration, but they continually received questions about where people could pick up their badges. Levy and her team have a principle of really understanding what it is that a person is looking for and then ensuring that the labeling and directions clearly match it.
But the team’s design mindset goes beyond just navigation. They are also focused on creating an optimal environment for business to get done. The NAFEM Show is a buying show - attendees are there to test and purchase equipment and supplies. NAFEM wants to ensure that people are pumped up and excited when they enter the exhibit hall. Attendees enter the hall through a series of lighted arches while flashy video clips and subtle music builds excitement. The outcome is that the audience enters the hall with energy and feeling pumped. This makes the show feel buzzier and positions people to jump instantly to networking and discovery.
At every turn, barriers have been lowered and friction has been eliminated. Nothing has been overlooked. Even the name badges have large font. Levy shared that the audience-first philosophy of the NAFEM Executive Vice President and NAFEM Board of Directors is responsible for the show’s success. While budget is always a factor, they start their decision-making process by examining what will make the experience better for their audience. In addition, the EVP’s innovative mindset continually moves the show forward. Working together, they have created a culture of continuous improvement and growth.
Levy shared two important pieces of advice for tradeshow managers:
- Respond, don’t just react. Relax, take a breath and trust that every problem can be solved.
- Don’t get stuck on your successes. It is important to keep looking through your audience’s eyes and ensure you are continually meeting their changing needs.
I believe the real secret of what makes Buffy Levy so successful at tradeshow design is something that was apparent throughout our conversation. She remembers that her attendees are people, individuals with different needs, and she truly cares about them.
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