The Gatehouse Blog

The employee expo – a tactic with real potential

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by a large utility company to attend its annual employee exhibition. They’ve been doing one for years apparently – taking over an large exhibition hall for a few days and inviting their people (and suppliers) to come along for a few hours to see what’s going on inside the company.  Intrigued by the concept and keen to get to know the organisation better, I snapped their hand off and went along for the day as a guest.

I’ve come across similar events in the past – indeed I created one or two during my days in-house – but they were always tagged onto a more traditional all-employee conference. As such, the exhibition element was effectively bonus content – a way of making better use of an expensive venue, giving staff something to do during the breaks and subtly reinforcing the messages and themes conveyed in the main event.  So this was my first direct experience of a ‘pure’ employee exhibition. 

The concept is simple. Hire a venue, brief key teams to create their own exhibition ‘stands’, invite employees along, deliver the event. I’m making it sound easy and, of course, the reality is the exercise can be as simple or painful to produce as any other activity we get involved in – and I have no doubt the event I attended involved considerable input from the comms team here, who did an excellent job. But, depending on which way you do it, it could be a very different kind of input to the usual employee conference.

Although there was an overarching umbrella theme and identity for this event and a welcome from the CEO in the exhibition guide, there were no tight scripts, very little Powerpoint, branding was minimal and the timetable was fairly fluid, so there wasn’t too much ushering required. Those of you who are involved in staging large internal events will know that these are the meat and veg of the typical conference – and therefore often place considerable demands on the comms team.    

Where I think these events are most effective – and this one was – is in the following areas:

  • engaging employees around some of the real, live, current activities the business is involved in – enabling them to experience some of the things their colleagues do and hopefully gain an appreciation of what’s happening across the wider organisation
  • providing some visibility for the more obscure teams and initiatives – giving them their 15 minutes of fame  
  • building community by providing an environment in which employees can meet other employees informally, in a largely social setting
  • unleashing employee creativity by giving teams the freedom to design and deliver their own exhibition space (working to a consistent brief, of course) 
  • bringing dull subjects to life and getting employees to sit up and pay attention to subjects that would normally fly below their radar   

The event I attended featured a Crystal Maze which employees could enter to win prizes if they collected sufficient ‘time tokens’ from around the exhibition.  As for the stands themselves, all sorts of techniques were employed to get team messages across – blackboards, staff in costume, video, stickers, postcards, quizzes, before and after photos, visuals and give-aways – the list goes on and on. 

There was a large area in the centre of the hall where employees got to compete against each other in a ‘drilling and tapping’ competition – effectively having a go at what some of their frontline workers do each day. This was a big hit with staff.

A Big Brother-style diary room even enabled visitors to leave comments on video. Throughout the event interactivity was emphasised – there was even a competition where visitors got to nominate their favourite stand (my own personal favourite was the ‘Old Skool Customer Service’ stand). 

Ask me a few years ago and I’d have probably disliked this approach, but in today’s context it really works. Budgets are tight and there is growing scepticism amongst employees around some glossy, heavily produced, tightly choreographed set-piece events. As we are seeing in other areas – like social media – a more authentic, raw, real world/user-generated approach is sometimes more effective and credible.

There’s been a lot of talk over the years about experiential employee events and I’ve always been a fan – any live event that gets beyond a simple ‘show and tell’ and actually involves people has to be a good thing.  But many of the examples I’ve come across in the past have been glossy, highly theatrical affairs – inevitably costing a huge amount of money. Powerful as these grandiose internal events can be and relevant as they sometimes are, the reality is that we don’t always need a bespoke set, actors, live video and a lighting rig U2 would be proud of. This example shows that sometimes a well thought-through, simple, under-produced, home-grown approach is far more effective.