Indoor: Exhibit & Trade Show Graphics

The current recession, one of the worst in US history, has impacted everything from auto sales to housing starts to joblessness. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the country’s economic straits have also affected the market for trade show and exhibit graphics. That market has changed over the past couple of years, as clients have sought to stretch the dollars they spend on these materials.

The belt-tightening has been painful for print providers who specialize in these products, but it has also spelled new opportunities in some product lines.

Client demand for more bang for the buck has hit just about every provider in this segment, leaving them scrambling to meet their customers’ suddenly altered priorities. Pat Heineman, president of Manassas, VA-based Showcase Portable Exhibits, which is focused on portable show exhibits, banner systems and table-throws shipped in cases or boxes, reports her clients want smaller, more lightweight and cost-effective materials.

“What I’m seeing that’s very interesting is the trend toward dye-sublimation printing on fabrics,” Heineman noted. “It’s growing because of price. It’s becoming less expensive, and it’s also more lightweight. You can have an eight-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide display with the graphic attached to the pop-up frame. The tension of the frame takes out all the wrinkles. That gives you a 25-pound display that is totally seamless and pops up easily. You can set up this display in about a minute.”

The move is also on toward smaller displays. Clients who have long used 8-by-10-foot, free-standing exhibit booths are rethinking their budgets for shipping displays, and are pursuing tabletop units to save money and shipping costs, she said.

Heineman’s clients are also choosing to not order completely new displays every two to five years, and are instead opting to keep existing displays but simply refresh the graphics. Again, the catalyst is fiscal conservatism. Producing new graphics for a tabletop display would cost about $500, she says, while creating a totally new tabletop display with new graphics would yield a price tag of $1,500 to $2,000. Customers may also decide that they’re content with their existing tabletop display, but seek to alter their look by having a new table-throw created, she said.

Much the same kind of client requests are being heard at Keystone Displays, a 12-year-old Harrisburg, PA shop specializing in portable and modular exhibit materials.

“We’ve done more refurbishment of displays and rental of displays,” said shop president Sean Farrell, who added that for many of his clients, a way to get through the next year is to ask only for new graphics, as opposed to entirely new display systems.

The trend toward greater budgetary mindedness is also being seen at Atlanta’s Total Graphic Solutions, a five-year-old enterprise owned by Charlie Rezac.

Rezac, whose company produces trade show graphics, backdrops, banners, and POP standees, finds corporate clients of his trade show products are not changing out graphics as often as they formerly did. “They’re using the graphics over and over,” he said. “They’re looking for cost-cutting types of materials. Before, they may have used a 6-mil piece of material, and now they’re going down to a 3-mil. Or if they were using a canvas type of backdrop, today they may be using vinyl or cloth type materials. We’re doing the same amount of business, and the costs of materials for us are more affordable, so this isn’t really affecting our bottom line.”

Another Peachtree City print provider, Presentech Advanced Print Solutions, has not been immune to the heightened frugality of corporate customers, said David Midler, who with partner Joel Berger co-owns the nearly 20-year-old Atlanta business.

“More and more companies are looking for a means of presenting a quality image for their companies, but keeping a handle on expenses,” said Midler, whose 20-year-old company is 40 percent devoted to serving corporate users that request such materials as meeting and display graphics and trade show and special events displays.

Better Hardware, Bigger Sales

In the past, Midler said, the rule of thumb was to “spend an awful lot of money on unique and custom displays.” Today, the priority is being able to economically ship or transport the unit. That’s been a factor in the increased popularity of the retractable banner stand, which can be shipped for low cost or carried right onto an airplane.

“The trade show market we participate in has gotten very clever in creating custom-looking and unique display systems at very affordable prices,” he added.

During this evolution, Midler and Berger came to a key realization. Like just about everyone else in the business, they had always carried product lines based almost entirely on price considerations, and didn’t recognize the substantial differences in display stand quality among different providers offering different prices, he says. But when their clients used those cheaply-made stands regularly, the stands frequently broke, leading to major dissatisfaction among the customer base.

The result: Presentech moved to a premium-quality stand, a strategy that quickly spurred its most significant recent growth spurt. “That gave us the confidence to know that the hardware was of as high-quality as the graphics we were printing,” Midler said.

“Since we switched to ExpoLinc, we never had a customer call or complaint. And that confidence allows you to easily market a stand, regardless of the price point. We quickly learned so many people had been burned by bad stands out there, that if you could explain the difference in quality, the price became irrelevant to them.”

Other trends impacting Presentech include increased use of refillable stands, a trend toward greater modularity and a desire among more clients to “Go Green.”

Because many customers are striving to ensure their investments in trade show hardware last as long as possible, they are becoming increasingly interested in refillable stands, Midler said. “One of the features we liked about the ExpoLinc product was the ability to send the customer a self-contained cartridge with a new graphic, allowing them to swap it out themselves in a few minutes.”

Companies are also seeking greater modularity and flexibility. They don’t want trade show displays that only work in one setting or for only one purpose, Midler said.

Instead, they demand displays versatile enough to be used for a large or small show or individualized client presentations. They want to pick and choose components they use, or they choose a fraction of the components available to them. “It’s all about flexibility and ease of use,” he reported. “It all goes back to that issue of economy. But you want to do this while getting something that you know will be sure to hold up.”

Presentech has received a growing number of inquiries from clients for more earth-friendly materials and processes, said Midler. “[Customers] don’t want to throw things in the garbage, and by being able to reuse the stand with new graphics, they’re cutting down on the amount of waste they generate,” Midler said. “People are happy to be environmentally conscious as long as it doesn’t cost them more, or inconvenience them. And with this refillable stand, there is no penalty. There’s only savings.”

Rezac’s Total Graphic Solutions is another shop meeting customer requests for ecologically sound materials. “Green is the new buzzword,” said Rezac, who reported many customers were asking for biodegradable substrates, and placing notes on the bottom of their exhibits reading, “Produced on biodegradable materials.”

Farrell, too, saw a demand for greater sustainability on the part of his clients. They’re more conscious of how systems are built, and of the need to reduce waste. “By cutting down on the size and weight of displays you’re shipping to shows, you are leaving less of a carbon footprint,” he said. “This is an ongoing trend.”

Dissenting from the argument customers are more interested in sustainability is Heineman, who reported she would like to say that “Going Green” has impacted her business, but it really hasn’t. “I haven’t experienced people asking for green,” she said. “People are definitely cutting back on their marketing budgets. Or they’re holding off. They’re saying, ‘We’re waiting for our funding.’”

One final trend being observed in some quarters is one away from traditional trade shows in general. Cathy Campbell, who terms herself a “solutions provider” for Minneapolis-based Graphic Systems, is among observers witnessing this movement.

“You think of a trade show as specific to an industry,” said Campbell, whose nearly 40-year-old company is a nationwide source for wide-format printing aimed at the event and trade show marketplace. “I’ve seen businesses marketing more now to consumers, because people aren’t attending trade shows as much as they did. Businesses aren’t making the investment in trade shows they once did. I think webinars have helped the customer market without frequent trade shows.”

Brighter Horizons

Looking ahead, many appear cautiously optimistic. “It seems to be coming back,” Rezac said of the market. “We’re getting a lot more requests for quotes. And many printers have gone out of business, meaning those who have remained in business get to pick up more work.”

Midler feels challenging times are still ahead, because companies have cut back on the events they attend. Moreover, there is a stigma in attending large trade shows, the type of shows where many displays are used. A number of companies are concerned with not appearing ostentatious in today’s economy, he said.

Still, he’s optimistic. “I do think it is getting better, and as it does, companies are starting to recognize they have to have their marketing presence ready to go, to take advantage of the emerging new business opportunities out there,” Midler said.

Like Midler, Heineman also underscores the need to be prepared for better times. Her advice to print providers interested in beginning to serve customers in this niche is to start small, producing such inexpensive items as small tabletop exhibits.

“Because when the economy does turn around, if you’re out there, you will have an edge over someone just waiting” for it to improve, she argued. “I’m pushing myself to spend more marketing money. There is a need, but it’s being suppressed. I’m optimistic that by the fourth quarter, we’ll see a turnaround. I’m getting positive vibes from my clients they will be adding to their exhibit programs.”