Age restrictions, buggy parks and guerrilla marketing – meet the event profs conquering the children’s market.
Childhood. It was a simpler time.
A time of Beanie Babies, Pokémon Cards, Art Attack and interminable dial-up internet (Or was that just EN?).
The experiences we have as children shape us, from our taste in music and television to our love of sports, books and even live events.
All of which begs the question; how many people see exhibitions as a formative part of their childhood? How many people have fond memories of walking through the doors of an exhibition centre?
Whatever the number, it’s set to exponentially increase in future years as a raft of shows aimed at children are on course for massive growth in the UK. October 2017 will see the return of Kidtropolis to ExCeL London for a second year, an event focused around providing a ‘funtastic’ experience for children and families.
For two months throughout the school summer holidays, Dinosaurs in the Wild will be entertaining families with an immersive, theatrical exhibition experience at the NEC. Meanwhile, both in London and at new events around the UK, LEGO-themed show BRICKLIVE will once more be encouraging children to imagine, build and create.
Exhibitions aimed at kids have arguably never been more popular.
But, while being a child may have seemed simple, putting on an exhibition for children is anything but, as Simon Pilling, managing director of Kidtropolis, knows all too well.
“There’s a lot to think about,” he tells EN. “When you’re dealing with the public, particularly families, it’s all about the finer detail.”
In a previous life Pilling used to run the London Toy Fair, spending six years at the helm of the show as part of the British Toy & Hobby Association before resigning three years ago.
“I had a burning ambition to create a consumer event,” he explains. “Every time ITV or the BBC picked up on the Toy Fair my phone would ring with people asking how to get tickets for the show. I’d then have to let them down and tell them it was a trade show (and then I’d have to explain what a trade show was).
“People would ask if there was a similar show that they could take their family to, and I had to say there wasn’t anything. This kept happening each year, before my wife finally decided to give me a push and said ‘you’ve got to give this a go’.”
After running a 2015 consumer event based around toys – which he describes as ‘alright’ – Pilling launched Kidtropolis at ExCeL London in 2016. The show expanded from just toys to anything relating to children and families and attracted 18,500 people over three days.
With so many children and young families coming to the venue, almost every element of organising the show has to be considered through this lens.
Even choosing a date to hold the event requires a relatively long thought process, and an element of second-guessing of the behavioural patterns of potential visitors.
“You want families to come together, so it has to be a weekend,” explains Pilling. “That limits you to a two-day event unless you hold it over a bank holiday and expand to three. Alternatively you can hold it on half term or in the summer holidays. People tend to go away in the summer holidays so the decision was made to make it the October half term.”
After narrowing in on a specific date to hold the show, the Kidtropolis team also decided on a specific age range that the show should appeal to: ages 12 and under. While it might seem counterproductive to exclude a whole section of the show’s potential audience, it allowed the Kidtropolis team to choose exhibitors and content appropriate to a younger age group.
“I think it’s better to specify a narrow age range,” argues Pilling. “The kids know what they’re into, the parents know what they’re into, and they can make an informed decision about whether it’s suitable for them to attend the show. Parents know it’s not an event with gory computer games, and we can make sure the content is suitable.
“We can also think carefully about what to bring in," Pilling continues. "Are there age restrictions? Are there height restrictions? Are there ability restrictions? Is it noisy?”
Pilling makes sure both the Kidtropolis team and the show’s exhibitors have their young audience in mind when designing the experience. This involves adding bright colour and hands-on activities to the show, as well as considering what each element would look like from the perspective of a small child.
This is also a consideration for the organisers of BRICKLIVE, who bring in around one million of LEGO’s colourful bricks to shows to create a bright, vibrant space for young children.
The emphasis at both shows is on creativity and interactivity, with experiences that are designed to inspire and educated the children in attendance.
“We’ve looked around museums, as well as other events and experiences, to fund things that work well and can be incorporated into the event,” Pilling says. “There are lots of festivals and summer events and gaming festivals, but there’s nothing as eclectic as this, it’s a bit of everything.”
When it comes to a show heavily aimed at children and young families, the infrastructure of the venue should be a consideration, along with whether it will be able to cope with an influx of a specific type of customer.
“You have to think about the services available onsite,” explains Pilling. “If you’re bringing a family they might have a younger baby, so do you bring in elements like baby changing, buggy parks or breastfeeding areas? Do you think about coffee spaces for parents to sit and enjoy themselves while the kids are playing?
“Sometimes you have to specify that this isn’t a drop off and pick up later kind of event. It sounds crazy but you hear from security firms about parents who’ve dropped off a kid and come back four hours later to pick them up.
“Also, in terms of security, you need to have a very strict lost child policy. They can’t go wandering out of an event on their own. You need to make sure that the guys on the door will spot them and make sure they’re reunited with the parents.”
Another consideration for Pilling is the balance between exhibitors and experiences, and how exhibitors are likely to interact with visitors to the show.
“Kidtropolis isn’t first and foremost about retail,” he explains. “It’s about the experience. It’s about having fun and spending time with family. The feedback we got from last year was that it’s wonderful not to be pressured into buying something. Some of our exhibitors see it purely as a marketing experience; a chance to get the brand out there. Equally if visitors want to make a purchase that mechanism is there.”
It’s important to Pilling that visitors – especially parents – can easily understand the show and what it is before they buy tickets. With consumer exhibitions, arguably far more than in the world of B2B, whether or not visitors attend can be dependent on spontaneous decisions.
“People don’t read everything you put out on websites, or everything you put out in marketing, but they still have an idea of what the event is,” says Pilling. “Your branding has to demonstrate as clearly as possible what you’re creating, because people can make snap decisions based on a picture.”
Sometimes visitor demographics can move towards young families without much direct input from organisers themselves. In recent years, Showmasters, organiser of London Film & Comic Con, has seen attendees at the show change from largely sons and fathers to whole families.
“Comic Cons used to be dominated by TV shows like Doctor Who,” explains marketing director Jill Ubdegrove. “Now there are elements like the Marvel cinematic universe, which has certainly had an impact. There are also stronger females role models in films and TV and the cosplay element has definitely appealed to the family side of things.”
The expanded audience hasn’t gone unaddressed in marketing for London Film & Comic Con, which emphasises the appeal of the show as a fun family day out and as something to do on a rainy day weekend. The show has also launched a co-locating sister event catering to the family audience: the Young Adult Literature Convention.
But where is the best place to advertise a family-centric show? And, more importantly, do you appeal to the children or their parents?
“That’s the question,” laughs Pilling. “Is it about ‘pester power?’ Or do you target the parents because they’re the ones actually buying the tickets? We see it as a bit of both.”
Kidtropolis uses a variety of the usual platforms to market the show – such as radio and social media – along with the more unusual idea of enlisting schools in East London and Essex to put flyers into children’s schoolbags.
“We ended up sending out about 100,000 of those last year, which was phenomenal,” enthuses Pilling.
Kidtropolis also makes full use of online content and celebrities to create a buzz around the event.
“You can create the visuals and build excitement with online content and maybe engage some YouTubers or celebrities to talk about the brand and event on your behalf,” continues Pilling. “We had a couple of people from YouTube celebrity stardom last year, there are always people who are desperate to see their YouTube idols. There are particular people that kids see online and they interact with their videos like modern soap operas.
“I’ve got three boys, so I know what radio stations they listen to and how they interact with the internet. Having five, seven and nine year-old consultants for the show is quite handy (but they’re not on the pay roll quite yet!)."
While appealing to the kids is key, both Pilling and the team at Showmasters are careful not to underestimate the appeal of nostalgia for drawing in parents to the shows.
“A lot of our guests were stars in the 1970s and 1980s so there’s something there for the parents too,” Ubdegrove tells EN.
“If you’ve got parents coming along then you can introduce nostalgia and retro brands as well,” agrees Pilling. “The idea being that mum and dad used to play with this or what this when they were a kid and now they can repeat their wonderful childhood with their children. We’re appealing not just to the kids but to the parents as well.”
While organisers of family-centric shows are appealing to visitors, it’s clear that they are managing to sell their concepts to some of the bigger fish in the exhibitions industry.
After the 2016 edition of Kidtropolis, Pilling was approached by five companies wanting to get involved in the future of the show. After a number of conversations it was agreed that MCM Central, organiser of MCM Comic Con London and Summer in the City, would become part owner of the show.
“The team approached us with an idea and we accepted,” says Pilling. “They will help us grow the brand and the event over the next few years.”
Elsewhere, Multiplay, organiser of Insomnia gaming festival, has partnered with GAME Digital, organiser of BRICKLIVE, to run the show and expand it into four locations around the UK.
While there are undeniably a whole host of factors that need to be considered when putting on a family-centric show, organisers are clearly beginning to believe that they are worth the additional time, effort and care.
Shows aimed at families are attracting the attention of organisers and visitors alike, and may well succeed in forming the nostalgic childhood memories of a whole new generation of event profs.