indoor: Trading Up

No matter what industries they’re serving, more and more print providers are creating masterpieces for the trade show and exhibit market. They’ve found in this niche great opportunity to grow their profits. How? By offering clients top-notch product that grabs show goers’ attention without breaking the bank.

Doing well in this segment of the wide-format field requires keen attention to the swift pace of technological change, a cognizance of clients’ ever-evolving needs and desires, and a sensitivity to the value equation that spurs customers to buy. In short, lowest price doesn’t always win in trade show and exhibit work.

Among the most noteworthy trends being seen in this niche is a move to trade show displays that are lighter, more mobile, and less costly to store and transport. This is a substantial change from the past, when the landscape was dominated by large trade show displays tailor made for individual clients.

“Now it’s all modular,” said Walter Bernard, owner of Webster, TX-based Bay Area Imaging, a 25-year-old shop that began as a photo lab and in 2005 morphed into a large-format graphics provider of trade show signage. “In the past you used heavy panels and frames to put together custom displays. But today, there are lightweight fabrics and Sintra panels...Even in the large custom displays, they’re using more modular components, like the smaller ones.”

The smaller, more lightweight, and modular units are largely a response to higher shipping, storage and set-up costs. Some Bay Area Imaging clients use large systems for larger shows, but smaller and easier-to-transport displays for other shows. They may go to the same number of larger shows every year, but they don’t cart along a big booth to each one of them, Bernard said.

Companies are particularly seeking to avoid the sizable set-up costs for which many trade shows are infamous. Accordingly, Bernard’s clients have more and more demanded roll-up banner stands and lightweight exhibit materials.

They don’t need big expensive crews to set up, or trucks to transport it at high shipping costs,” he said. “It all boils down to flexibility and affordability...If you can use your sales crew that will be appearing at the show anyway, and everyone’s carrying in a banner stand, you can save a lot of money. Things are a little tougher these days, and people are looking to economize.”

This cost consciousness on the part of show exhibitors is a big factor in today’s market, he added. A few years ago, firms weren’t nearly as conscious of saving every last nickel and dime as they are today, in his opinion. “They want solutions providing the impact they seek, but at a lower cost,” he said.

The desire to economize is also negatively impacting demand for green solutions, he added. Much has been written about the demand for eco-friendly responses in the trade show industry, a field whose high turnover of materials would appear to leave it ideally positioned to lead the battle for sustainability.

“It may be in some parts of the country, but I haven’t seen much of that in Houston,” Bernard said. “Cost is far more important than sustainability issues are. We have materials that are recyclable. But they cost more, and people lose interest. If it came as a side benefit for the same price, everyone would want it.”


Stand Out from the Crowd

One other trend Bernard has witnessed is shrinking demand for pop-ups, which are systems featuring collapsible frames for easy transportability. They’ve become too much of a “me-too item” in the minds of many industry insiders, he said. “If you want to stand out, you try to find a different look.”

Also noticing a move away from what he calls “the old eight- or ten-foot pop-up” is David Merrick, founder of Nashua, NH-based BIGraphics, a shop he launched after being laid off as a printer product manager in 1996. In the 14 years since, BIGraphics has evolved into an eight-employee firm filling 9,000 square feet of space and running a multitude of printers as it services resellers like print brokers, ad agencies and sign makers, as well as a few corporations. Trade show and exhibit signage represents about a quarter of its business.

“We’re focusing on more contemporary designs,” Merrick said. “These are displays made of truss tubing, and featuring contemporary designs like serpentine shapes with fabric displays. There seems a significant move toward fabric products...It gives the appearance of a more elegant display, and lends an upscale feeling to the product or service being promoted in the display.”

Another type of system increasingly being demanded today is the flat panel unit featuring three-dimensional lenticular printing. “We sent a light box three-dimensional display to a cigar industry trade show in New Orleans two weeks ago,” Merrick reported. “In that display, we had a lighted 3-D image utilizing lenticular technology. We’re sort of newcomers—but coming along—in this area of lenticular, which is opening opportunities in flip and displays that appear to show motion, as well as in three-dimensional images.”


Toot Your Own Horn

When it comes to touting his trade show and exhibit signage capabilities, Merrick uses a variety of promotional tools. He has an outside salesperson and a website, and one of his favorite tools is email marketing, which he recently used to unveil a new line. Terming email marketing “an economical method of getting messages across to my customers,”

Merrick said he sends about 1,600 email marketing messages monthly, of which about 30 percent are opened. In his most recent effort, BIGraphics dispatched 1,700 email marketing messages, of which 400-plus were opened. There were 60 click-throughs of a link in the email to learn more about the 15 percent discount the mailing offered.

His number one promotional tool, as it is for many small businesspeople, is word of mouth. “We’ve been in business 15 years is December, and we get a lot of referrals from customers who enjoy doing business with us,” Merrick said.


Navigating through the Price War

While the economy is forcing some wide-format print shops to compete on price, that’s not the strategy embraced by Aaron Hambleton, owner of The Great Display Company LLC in Bloomington, IL. With partner Jacob Duquenne, Hambleton launched the company in April, targeting the trade show market but offering other wide-format products like posters, decals, and signs. The company serves the central Illinois metros of Springfield, Peoria, and Champaign, as well as Bloomington-Normal and greater McLean County.

Instead of trying to outbid competitors, the Great Display Company LLC has branded itself as a higher-priced, higher-quality provider. Its hallmarks are premium materials, ultra-fast quotes in 15 minutes and great customer service.

Said Hambleton of company philosophy: “We’ll get returning customers because we don’t base everything on price. Every once in a while, we are asked to participate in a bidding process, and we will have to pass up the opportunity, because there is so much work to be done in higher-profit areas, and also because we’re not going to get into a price war with competitors.”

Hambleton and Duquenne started their company after a combined 14 years working for other wide-format print shops. They saw an opening in the market when the company for which they had been employed began pursuing larger-volume national campaigns and ignoring local customers.

They quickly found their customers wanted premium materials in displays and signage. “They’re willing to spend more money on premium materials, rather than getting something cheaper that can only be used once,” Hambleton said. “We push our marketing in that direction. We had to educate our clients about the value of premium materials, and that’s working out well.”

Hambleton and Duquenne also have a handle on promoting their trade show and exhibit signage. The Great Display Company website is linked into quite a few search engines, and the company does plenty of email marketing. In addition, it sends out sample kits, is part of the McLean County Chamber and donates banners and other materials for not-for-profit organization events. It’s also created partnerships with minor league professional sports teams that have led to sizable amounts of ongoing work, Hambleton reported.

Finally, the company facility is itself part of the promotional mix. The Great Display Company is housed in a downtown storefront that benefits from high levels of pedestrian traffic on the part of attorneys and corporate officials.

When clients and other visitors step inside, they appreciate the fact the air quality reflects the company’s decision to use eco-solvent printers. “Our clients don‘t demand green, but they do appreciate when they visit our shop that it doesn’t smell like a traditional print facility,” Hambleton said.

You Can't Fake It to Make It

What advice do veterans of the trade show and exhibit graphics business offer beginners to the business? Hambleton said it’s important to have hands-on experience in the field and to really know the products available. “You can’t fake it in this marketplace; you need to be an expert,” he said.

In addition, he urges beginners to visit trade shows to get a perspective on what other regional providers of trade show and exhibit signage are offering.

“Learn everything about your competitors and one-up or two-up them,” Hambleton advised. “It doesn’t always have to be on price.”

For his part, Merrick urges newcomers pay attention to the rapid pace of technological evolution in the wide-format field, and note which technologies—such as printing direct to foam-core—are most cost effective from a production angle. Also, he says, “Pay attention to those things that go beyond production quality to ensuring your products get shipped and delivered safely, for example.”

Bernard’s advice serves as a fitting capstone: “The trade show business is alive and well as far as I’m concerned. And the companies that do well in it are the ones that are the most innovative, providing clients with new and different solutions, rather than just putting out the same old pop-up.”