Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

Cars and trucks are generally considered the bread and butter of any good vehicle graphics provider. But wraps are not limited to just cars and trucks.

Buses, trains, boats, airplanes, helicopters and motor homes often need to be wrapped, and these provide “plus business” for shops already skilled in printing and installing wraps to the silhouettes of ordinary cars and trucks.

In the pages to follow, we examine this oft-overlooked segment of the vehicle wrap marketplace, learn the specifics about wrapping boats and planes, and investigate how vehicle graphics providers that wrap more than just cars promote this capability to their current and prospective customers. In short, we’re taking the wraps off a too-frequently-misunderstood opportunity.

Not a huge step

Those that have moved beyond cars and trucks to wrap a wider, wilder array of moving objects say this isn’t the insurmountable hurdle many assume.

“It really isn’t,” says Tonja Griffin, general manager of the digital division at Houston-based Mountain Commercial Graphics, a 30-year-old screen-printed large-format graphics provider that started with OEM labeling and evolved into vehicle graphics, architectural branding and pump signage for gas stations.

The company has produced bus wraps, bass boat wraps and the big job of wrapping Metro rail cars for the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority.

“Almost all our customers come to us with special projects they need done, because we have a very good reputation as Certified 3M printers,“ she continues. “You must have good relationships in the industry. Once you have good relationships in the industry, your customers talk to other potential customers. They prefer quality, and getting the product right the first time. We try not to sell on price. You need to be selling on doing a really good job.”

Adds Troy Downey, owner of 11-year-old Ape Wraps, a high-profile wraps shop in Coronado, Calif., “What are the secrets of going beyond cars and trucks? It’s really no secret. It’s all about doing your homework.”

At Road Rage Designs, a 15-year-old shop based in Spring Grove, Ill., in the state’s famous Chain O’ Lakes region, president Mike Grillo and his staff have wrapped boats, copters, motor homes and a small airplane used in a trade show display. “Everything is common sense when you’re doing a wrap,” he says. “That’s true whether you doing a car or the world’s largest beer can.”

Meanwhile, wrapping buses is a big profit center for DI Graphics in Wheat Ridge, Colo. The shop has also wrapped boats in the past, says Tyson Stenson, the company’s manager of automation fulfillment services. “We have a process and programming in place to help us assess vehicles right down to the smallest detail, so we know the graphics will meet our quality standards,” he adds.

Now that we know that it doesn’t involve a huge leap, is moving from cars and trucks to boats and planes and trains worth the effort? “I believe so, yes,” says Sean Tomlin, owner of Designer Wraps in Millville, N.J., a seven-year-old shop that specializes in vehicle wraps, but the for the past five years has handled bass boats, ocean yachts and water taxis, as well as transit buses.

“The margins are higher, and the work can be less, if you know what you’re doing. We basically make a pattern of the side of the boat so we know the contour of the side. We create the wrap to that boat, and apply it. Some of the fishing boats are pretty easy to do, and you can charge good money.”

You and your partner

If your shop is out to wrap a wide range of conveyances, as Mountain Commercial Graphics does, it’s important to not only believe in yourself, but to believe in your partner supplying the film, Griffin says. In many of her company’s jobs, the shop is wrapping a bus or train with a short-term message. Because the owner of the conveyance wants as much advertising revenue as possible, that message will sooner or later be removed and replaced with another.

“What I like about 3M is the quality is good even before we print on it,” Griffin notes. “Our installers love it because it’s easy to install. And it’s also easy to remove, which our customers love because they don’t have to worry about damage to the vehicle’s paint, and having to repaint after we’re through.”

Enjoying a good partnership with manufacturers is also helpful in knowing how various films match up with projects. The durability to withstand elements over varying time frames is a key consideration. “Buses, which can be for Metro or a private carrier, are generally wrapped for a year,” Griffin says. “The trains are wrapped for about three months. And boats are short-term wraps, generally wrapped for an event, and designed to last about a month.”

Exhorting shops to “do their homework,“ Downey urges speaking with material reps or even meeting them at the site to determine the right solution. “A bad media selection is a huge problem right now, as wraps have become so prevalent. There is good margin in these types of projects if done properly. So do yourself a favor, qualify the surface and proper media to be used.”

To provide an example of why this is important, he points to the special considerations of boats. “Boats are doable on many levels, and can pay well,” he says. “However, it’s all about surface, media selection and preparation . . . You’ll want to use a media that has an air-egress pattern in the adhesive, but none of the low-tack standoff features. You want a high-tack clean removable adhesive that will set up right away. Know this: These medias aren’t rated for below the waterline, so at the most you’ll not be applying anything lower than the first chine, and even then you will run a risk of failure.

“You might say, ’If there is a risk of failure and boats aren’t a warrantable surface, then why do them?’ Clients more than ever are into the personalization of these toys, especially watercraft. No cutting corners here. If you want it to pay, do it right the first time, or it will be coming back.”

As for aircraft, the FAA gets involved, closely scrutinizing what decals and wraps can and can’t be used on a plane, Downey says. For pressurized aircraft, there are medias specifically designed to expand and contract with the aircraft’s surface. “For self preservation, in general terms if you’re not certified and insured for this type of work, please step away from the aircraft,” he cautions.

“We don’t fiddle with this stuff, we leave it up to firms willing to pay high insurance costs associated with the chance of planes falling from the sky.”

Where wrap artists go wrong

Still hammering on his lesson about doing one‘s homework, Downey says wrap providers interested in branching out must be wary of the typical wrap request, which goes like this: “How much do you charge to wrap a boat?”

Says Downey: “Did you detect the hole in this question? What concerns me the most with this typical question is not the ignorance of the consumer. [It’s] the possibility that a wrap provider could actually answer a question this open ended. It boils down to the details, [and being] willing to put the time in to ask the right questions to determine what the surface quality is, what’s the year, make, model, is it OEM paint or aftermarket and the list goes on.

“The biggest problem with asking these questions is that the consumer had no idea just how ignorant that question was. [While not making] it seem like you’re performing brain surgery on them, qualify them with a few of the basic questions to get a feel for their actual intent. These few questions will help get right to the point . . . You can’t go wrong with asking the right questions up front. Do both them and yourself a favor. Qualify the project right out of the chute.”

From his perspective, Tomlin says providing wraps on boats involves not only the quality of the install, but the sealing of the boat afterwards.

“You want to edge seal every seam and every edge,” he says. “And also make sure the wrap is post heated, which really sets the adhesive.”

Another mistake is not knowing when it’s best to outsource components of the job to those who can deliver higher levels of skill. As Stenson reports: “We are not just printing the graphics, but also ensuring they’re installed correctly. We’ll use contractors, and make sure they meet a high standard of quality.

“Having them do the project ensures the job is done correctly.”

Promoting your service

Wraps shops spread the word about their capabilities in differing ways. Mountain Commercial gets its name in front of the industry, Griffin says.

“Our sales people will contact clients,” she adds. “We’re also contacted by bus manufacturers. If you’re a school or church and acquire a bus, the manufacturer will put on your logo and roll the price of that job into the lease agreement. If they want a full wrap, the manufacturer will refer to the wrap firm.”

In some cases, it’s the shop’s work on cars and trucks that gets attention, and helps land larger boat or train jobs. “Wrapped trucks are a great advertising tool,” Grillo says. “Most of it is our reputation bringing us the crazy work. Most of it has been people hearing about us and the quality of our work.”

More recently, Road Rage Designs has been focusing its marketing on that quality edge, and how it can help customers differentiate themselves. The shop’s new tagline is “Going Beyond the Vehicle Wrap,” referring to the fact that doing a great job is more than just wrapping a vehicle. “There’s the design, the printing, the installation and the follow-up,” Grillo says. “It’s the whole package. A lot of customers are just shopping for price, and not looking beyond the wrap.”

At Designer Wraps, Tomlin promotes through a search engine optimized website, where there is a section devoted to boat wraps. Many customers find his business by simply doing a Web search for providers of boat wraps. “The other part of our customer base comes in through word of mouth,” he says.

Many shops that produce “special work” on boats, trains and other objects find there’s benefit in positioning themselves as anything but the right provider for every need. “Our concentration is primarily vehicle graphics,” Stenson says.

“We will decline a project if we believe it will not meet our standards . . . We don’t typically handle the little projects of one or two vehicles. We prefer to handle fleets. Each of our projects has to fit within our company [capabilities], and if we don‘t feel it does, we will decline the project.”

Griffin and colleagues also see the value in being selective. “The more specialized wrap you’re doing, the more profitable it can be,” she says.

“You’re not competing on price. You’re selling on value added.”

For his part, Downey says there is no reason not to promote an ability to wrap conveyances that go beyond just cars and trucks. That’s because it is now within the realm of possibility to wrap almost anything. “The printers can do it, the media can do it, the adhesives can do it,” he says. “There are enough skilled installer networks that can get it done if you can’t. So don’t get in your own way of making the sale. Get help. There are many companies just like ours that are ready and willing to take on parts or even entire projects as contractors.”
Where do we go from here?

When asked where wraps are headed over the next three to five years, Downey used to have a good instinct for how to answer. That’s no longer true.

Revolutionary breakthroughs and upgraded products across the industry, whether in efficient new medias, in wrap-specific tools, in incredible large-format print speed and quality and in the ubiquity of installer training classes have left him far from glib when answering that question today, he reports.

“All I can say is now, we’re going to see surfaces wrapped that we never even thought of a year ago,” he says. “Stay tuned, and maybe this coming year we’ll even show you one you’d never thought could be done!”

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