M&IT: Every day’s a school day

Bett 2023 saw some 60,000 people from across the education ecosystem hit the ExCeL in London in March - from tech providers to the public sector, IT decision-makers, teachers and pupils. For me, Bett 2023 - and the behaviour of both exhibitors and attendees - was characterised by three specific themes.

  • The first thing you look for when stepping out onto the floor at any major event is the brands that have made a statement. And, at Bett 2023, amidst a somewhat restrained environment, these exhibitors were arguably even easier to spot.

    Two of the most striking builds included ViewSonic’s schoolhouse (complete with the brand’s Gouldian finches perched atop its roof) and the bucolic ‘forest’ from HP, which transformed their stand into an unmissable glade of trees.

    In stark contrast to these sylvan greens was BenQ’s sleek black and grey stand, which was dominated by vehicles in the form of its branded bus and an F1 simulator (thanks to the brand’s Williams Esports partnership). The latter, without doubt, grabbed the attention of audiences, even if the punch of their driving simulator was lessened by the fact that there were at least four other brands using a similar setup - slightly inexplicably - to drive footfall and
    dwell time.

    One particularly distinctive stand was a carnival experience, which included hay bales, a Punch and Judy stage, coffee bar and even a Hall of Mirrors. Unfortunately, the stand lacked a promo team to entice passers-by into the experience, and was only accessible by a small corner entrance, leaving the space - when I visited - feeling sadly empty.

    Storytelling is a huge part of big-build ambitions, and it’s easy to get over-excited when you land on a creative theme. The issue comes when the message gets obscured by the medium: there’s a fine line between a bold build that draws the crowds and one that fails to communicate its key messages.

    You’ve got a finite window to both engage and inform audiences, with more esoteric experiences serving as a barrier to comprehension. From a Stranger Things-inspired arcade (‘turning learning upside down’) to a 10-foot wheelie bin (‘eliminating learning waste’), there were moments at Bett where the creative risked being more clever than clear.

  • Playfully connecting with an enthusiastic audience a clear understanding of the attending audience is essential.

    Those at Bett over-index as being enthusiastic and passionate, happy to get hands-on and have fun, particularly attendees of school age. This influenced the amount of gamified experiences on offer.

    Driving simulators were curiously ubiquitous - the ‘80s-influenced arcade from Stone Group even went as far as offering people the chance to play the classic title Outrun.

    Multiple brands leveraged their eSports credentials to attract the attention of younger attendees, although it’s hard to say whether this was really hitting decision-makers or just entertaining an adjacent - albeit important - audience.

    Having recently attended Mobile World Congress, where virtual reality felt like a go-to exhibitor experience, it was interesting to see a relative lack of headsets at Bett. Whether this was driven by a desire to create more 'In Real Life' experiences, activation cost-savings or just a question of hardware available in most schools, it was nonetheless refreshing to have people’s focus largely ‘in the room’.

    After all, as Stephen Jull from multinational educational technology company BYJU’S reflected in his Bett keynote, technology - whether that’s a blackboard or an artificial technology algorithm - is there to assist teachers, not replace them.

  • Sustainability is now heavily linked to giveaways.

    The traditional expectation at an event the size of Bett has been that audiences leave with tote bags chock full of pens, pins, mascots, water bottles and more, but this year felt rather different.

    The lack of giveaways from many of the bigger brands felt like a win-win for them: with tighter budgets and more explicit sustainability goals, do they really need to give attendees a temporary reminder of who they are?

    More interesting was the approach taken by brands who opted to offer value back to audiences based on their interaction, helping create a more genuine connection through reciprocal value exchange.

    Canva, for example, offered people interacting with their stand the chance to get professional headshots - a digital-first item of genuine worth that audiences could take and use anywhere.

    On-brand and of value: the perfect balance. There’s little doubt that Bett 2023 represented a scaled-back iteration of the event, perhaps nodding to the fact that March is a little late for decisions that impact budgets in this sector (the event is usually held in January, but was pushed back in 2022 by Omicron, with a knock-on to 2023).

  • The cost of living crisis is also likely to have influenced brands, government and educational budget-holders - meaning a more reserved approach was perhaps a necessity as much as a nice-to-do.

    Returning in 2024 in its traditional January slot, will brands’ activation appetite re-emerge? Will the event once again become a floor-space race, or have two years of more subdued activation taught us something about smarter, more mindful engagement of audiences?

    They say that every day’s a school day, and one thing’s for sure: if you’re not evolving, then you’re not learning.