NextFest Brings Attendees Back to the Future

SANDI CAIN, NEWS EDITOR
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Los Angeles, CA – What kind of event would you expect from a magazine known for its edgy editorial and design?  At WIRED Magazine’s NextFest last September, it was more of the same thing: a visual and technological extravaganza that lit up the Los Angeles Convention Center and the imagination of 37,000 avid attendees, all curious to learn about the next big thing in technology, gaming, space travel, security and/or green living.

Billed as a ‘new World’s Fair,’ WIRED NextFest featured 160 exhibits from independent inventors, universities and R&D labs from all over the world, for children and adults alike. Staged in thematic pavilions covering more than 150,000 square feet, the event featured advances in communication, design, energy, entertainment, the environment, exploration, medicine/health, robotics, security and transportation.

NextFest featured both practical and whimsical prototypes designed for the future. That posed unique challenges for event services provider Freeman, which worked with the show for the first time. Trade Show Executive visited the event during move-in to observe firsthand how this one-of-a kind show came to life, then came back on opening day to witness the excitement of visitors and exhibitors, not to mention the event management and the service provider.

First Impressions

Attendees entered the show through a darkened hallway leading to the lobby where there were kiosks to help them customize their visits and print out a map showing the location of exhibits they wanted to see. The exhibit area was lit with color-coded theatrical lighting that changed from pale to bright to white and back again. Themed ‘pods,’ made of reusable lightweight framing, formed exhibit areas like Robot Row, the Playground and NASA’s Exploration Station. There were no straight aisles and no 10’x10’ exhibit booths. The atmosphere was electric.

To achieve that effect, Freeman and its audiovisual division had to throw out the standard trade show playbook. So different was the process that Freeman didn’t even send out its standard show kits to exhibitors, said Lisa Lundeen, corporate account executive for Freeman.  Instead, Freeman contacted all the exhibitors to indentify their specific needs in advance. “Nothing for the show is faxed in,” said Victor Friedberg, executive director of WIRED NextFest.

A Head Start

Pre-planning began about nine months out and included a team of six Freeman account managers. They gathered all the specs for the exhibits and made sure materials complied with government regulations. Those details were particularly important for this show, said Bob Walker, vice president of creative services for the audio visual arm of Freeman. “These people aren’t traditional exhibitors. They are inventors,” he said. “They might not think to ask the questions that seasoned exhibitors know to ask.”

Every booth contained products that don’t exist – at least not yet. Traditional commercial exhibits were not allowed, a move that may have cost WIRED some exhibitors but maintained the integrity of the event. Freeman worked with WIRED’s staff to develop the exhibit concepts and manage the budget. Walker said Freeman’s internal expertise in technology, theater and cinematography helped create the desired end product with one point of contact for the client, saving time and money.

Setup was more akin to setting up a concert than a trade show, Walker said. It took a week – five days on the structure alone – for a show that took up just one hall at the convention center, using 150,000 net square feet of exhibit space. Teardown took just two days.

Freeman used eight project managers from its audio visual division and about the same number from its decorating division. In all, about 100 union workers were on site, including 40 riggers, 30 decorators and 20 audio-visual technicians. During the show, Freeman used a 16-person crew working different shifts.

Darren Marsack, sales manager of exhibitor sales & service for Freeman, said the show used between 3,500 and 4,000 feet of truss and 550-600 lighting instruments, including LEDs.

 

Futuristic Challenges

Some of the unique challenges included:
•   Synchronizing the color shading program for the color-coded pavilions
•   Controlling light color and intensity throughout the show. All structure lights were BL3500 high brightness; LED lighting in the trusses was programmed to maintain color at the pavilions.
•   With no traditional aisles or straight lines to define booth spaces, it was more challenging to determine the power grids, Walker said.
•  Custom exhibits — some built on site — required custom power and lighting. For example, a laser harp used magnetic fluid and needed a special truss. The virtual Kung Fu game needed an even distribution of light that required design and testing, Walker said.

A Partner for All Seasons and Reasons

Freeman also produced a press event for sponsor X Prize Foundation in which the company announced a partnership with Google for the Lunar X Prize. The competition challenges private companies to land an unmanned robotic rover on the moon. Freeman designed the stage and its audio visual team produced the event, right down to writing show scripts and directing the production.

Freeman also staged the opening day event presented by NASA with special guest Buzz Aldrin and built the exhibit for presenting sponsor Hitachi. “It may have been the first time Freeman has done this level of show management,” Lundeen said.

WIRED’s Friedberg said he set the bar high. “The need to custom-design the show as a futuristic experience raised my level of expectations for the service contractor,” he said. “Freeman put a rock-star team together to help make this year’s WIRED NextFest a success. We were impressed.”

Reach Bob Walker at (214) 623-1342 or Bob.walker@freemanco.com; Darren Marsack at (214) 333-1813 or Darren.marsack@freemanco.com; Lisa Lundeen at (312) 654-4319 or Lisa.lundeen@freemanco.com; Victor Friedberg c/o Alexandra Constantinople at (415) 276-4962 or Alexandra.Constantinople@WIRED.com