Getting In on the Ground Floor

Just like most of the structures they decorate, the building wrap market segment is a multi-story affair. And each story must be told in order to do the topic justice.

One of those stories has to do with the decline in business during one of the worst economic downturns in America’s history. A second exposes the increasingly punishing legislative environment for building wraps. Another captures the challenges of creating and installing some of the largest pieces of art ever created. And another story focuses on the sizable financial and personal rewards to be enjoyed servicing this market.

Building wraps aren’t as prevalent as they were years ago, said Tom Wilhelm, president of GP Color Imaging Group in North Hollywood, CA. GP Color is a company that began in 1968 as a color photo lab, but transitioned to wide- and grand-format printing in 2001.

A prediction by I.T. Strategies that the outdoor building material would grow 15 percent between 2006 and 2010 isn’t being borne out in the Southern California market, Wilhelm said. The reason is the growing impact of municipal legislation.

“There are very few cities with restrictions lenient enough to allow a complete wrap of a building,” Wilhelm said. “Sunset Boulevard is a huge place for building graphics, but they will generally wrap only the west- and east-facing sides. What’s happened is the city ordinances have clamped down on it. We are currently having a war with our city council [in Los Angeles]. They limit the size of the graphic based on the size of the building, usually to a 1:12 scale. And on the vinyl, you can only cover 25 percent in text. So your printed message tends to get a little lost. Yet, they will allow some old and ugly buildings to remain, just hanging around being old and ugly.”

As a result, building wraps have declined in popularity since their peak around 2004 or 2005, Wilhelm said. “The use of the complete wraps locally was short-lived, simply because of the cost and time to do it,” he said. “There was a realization [advertisers] could get more bang for the buck, still get their messages across, their 100,000 hits a week, by doing wall murals instead of building wraps.”

An additional factor has been more stringent control of budgets, he added. For three or four years, advertising budgets have been squeezed, leading to tougher times and major financial hits for artists, producers and installers. “Everyone has been beat down over the past couple of years,” Wilhelm said. “They want it done for next to nothing. But the posting companies, the guys selling the space, have not taken a hit.”

Much the same is true in the region served by Mammoth Media, a six-year-old Pembrook, MA company. “We see ourselves as both an outdoor company and an indoor, point-of-purchase company,” company president Mark Rowell said.

In the Northeast, building wraps have fallen off big time, he added. “Building wraps are not as prevalent as they were, because the ad agencies’ budgets do not have the money to focus on building wraps. It’s a one-shot bang, as opposed to something like transit advertising. You have to have the money for the big splash, for the big bang.”

However, significant demand for the wraps can be found in some market niches. Property owners and property management companies are looking to building wraps to help promote unsold condominiums and unleased apartments, Rowell reported. Larger entities like airports are looking to wrap structural walls facing major traffic arteries to help bring them much-needed advertising revenues during the economic downturn.

Mammoth Media created an enormous wrap on the back side of Boston’s Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, that featured another legendary Beantown presence, the Patriots’ Tom Brady, promoting a vitamin-infused sports drink. And five years ago, before the resurgence of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, the then-struggling pro basketball franchise commissioned Mammoth Media to produce and install a building wrap.

Seen along a much-traveled interstate highway, the wrap features nothing more than the team’s very recognizable symbol, a shamrock, bearing the word “Celtics.” “It’s become an icon of the city,” Rowell said. “Five years later, it’s still up. That shows the longevity of those inks now. It’s no longer a matter of three months up and it’s gone.”

The Challenges of Wraps

As the comments of Wilhelm and Rowell attest, the building wrap market is one to be tackled only after careful planning and a firm understanding of its pitfalls. One of the big hurdles to surmount in building wraps is that they involve a lot more than just printing, Rowell said. “These pieces are structural pieces, with welding, reinforced webbing, D-rings, and grommet placement,” he reported. “And structural engineers need to be involved. You can’t just put up a 100-by-100 wrap and think it will stay there.”

And because building wraps are by their very definition enormous pieces, they can also involve huge costs. Those new to the market, Wilhelm said, “need to understand the specifications of the posting companies. Some people want two-inch, reinforced web hems with No. 4 grommets every 18 inches on all four sides. Some want extra bleeds they can wrap around the back. You have to be very careful. Because if you make a mistake, the install cost can run tens of thousands of dollars. If it’s not right, you are on the hook for the mistaken install and the re-install. It can get ugly real fast.”

For a revealing case in point, consider a recent experience GP Color Imaging Group endured in Las Vegas. The owners of a building under construction and still sheeted in plywood wanted a wrap to help make the structure more attractive to prospective occupants. “The company wanted to put up self-adhesive vinyl, and I said, ‘This is not going to stick to raw plywood,’” Wilhelm said, adding that this disagreement was only the beginning of a long series of issues. “The list of questions was longer than the time you had to do the job. They didn’t have art, didn’t have permits, nobody had measured the building and no one had any sizes. By the time it was done, it might have been cheaper to just finish the construction on the building than to put up the wrap.”

Transportation costs also are a significant factor for those producing building wraps for clients beyond their immediate area. Because they can weigh hundreds and thousands of pounds, wraps can’t be air freighted, Wilhelm reported.

“They need to be trucked across the country, when you get into the really big walls,” he said. “And it can take days to get a graphic across the country. If you air freight them, it’s more expensive than the graphics. But if you start in your own market, you will be able to control the shipping problems more readily.”

Another issue to which building wraps producers must acclimate themselves is the timetable involved in creating and getting wraps installed. A provider must first obtain specifications from the posting company, which help the provider understand how the piece will be finished, the substrate on which it will be printed and when it will be needed by the posting company, Wilhelm said. A good rule of thumb is that approved art must be in hand 60 days before the posting date of the building wrap.

The right equipment and technical expertise are also essential to achieving success in the field. Companies creating building wraps must have high-quality, very fast 16-foot digital inkjet printers, radio-frequency welding equipment to put the panels together, and appropriate grommets and cables for finishing, Wilhelm reported. “The technical expertise to finish these correctly takes some time,” he added. “You’re better off finding someone you can hire from another company who knows what they’re doing. The learning curve took us about three years—and we’re still learning.”

Wraps Can Be Rewarding

Despite all the cautionary wisdom offered up by Wilhelm and Rowell, both men report serving the building wrap market niche can deliver substantial gratification.

“It’s one of the only areas of the business where you can drive by something you created every day,” Rowell said. “Your wife gets sick of you saying, ‘I did that, I did that.’ I remember the first Times Square building wrap we did, just a straight American flag on white for Dunkin’ Donuts, right after 9-11. When you’ve done Times Square, you’ve made it in the world of building wraps.”

Wilhelm wholeheartedly agreed. “It’s very exciting to see your work on the outside of a building,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive when you see something going up 10 or 12 stories, and saying ‘We did that.’ And it can be pretty darn lucrative, if you price it properly and get your fee collected. Of course, these days, with the economy the way it is, everyone wants you to be the bank. They don’t want to pay you for 90 or 120 days. And that’s difficult because you’ve paid for everything: materials, labor, transport.”

Given all the ups and downs, pros and cons, and highs and lows of the industry, Wilhelm and Rowell have advice for novices. “Start small with banners, work your way up to bulletins, your standard billboards, and then start taking on occasional wall murals,” Wilhelm said. “That’s what you have to do, unless you are establishing a company with people who already have years of experience.”

And now might be the best time to enter into such a partnership, he added, because the difficult economy has forced a number of competitors out of the business.

For his part, Rowell advised pursuing a careful, step-by-step and high-quality approach. “Do some fence wraps, and small building wraps,” he suggested. “Overbuild everything. When you think you’ve built it enough, build it some more.”

As he looks ahead, Wilhelm appears to feel beginners shouldn’t be totally dissuaded by the challenges of the medium or by a struggling economy. “There are people out there doing this, and doing it well,” he said. “And there has been an uptick in advertisers buying the space over the past three or four months. For a while there, no one was buying anything. The advertisers weren’t spending a dime.”

And one other thing: Don’t go into this casually. “It looks easy,” Wilhelm said with a chuckle. “But it’s not for the faint of heart.”