On with the Show

As new printer technologies, inks, substrates and processes put enticing profit potential within reach of many print service providers, growing numbers are turning out masterpieces for the trade show and exhibit marketplace.

To make sure you’re among them, you’ll need to get up to date on the latest trends in the market, the growing preference for fabric over rigid displays, and the current thinking on handling the installation yourself or farming it out.

Most of all, you’ll need to know the techniques and tools required to take a trade show or exhibit signage assignment and knock it out of the park.

We recently put those issues to trade show and exhibit experts around the country. The insights they offer here may help you get on with the show.

What to Know

If seeking to begin serving the trade show and exhibit signage market, you will have to get used to asking detailed questions of clients. The more specific and pointed your questions, the more successful you are likely to be. One of the primary questions to ask is what type of structure you’ll be providing signage for, said Mike Compton, executive vice president of Renze Display, a 119-year-old Omaha shop focused on “anything trade show related,” according to Compton.

“There are so many different types of structures and extrusions out there,” he reported. “If a PSP doesn’t know how the graphics attach, adhere or slip into [the structure], that will cause the exhibitor installation problems.”

In addition to understanding structures, a print service provider also must understand how different structures will impact size of displays, Compton said.

One of his clients may ask for a 3-foot-by-4-foot graphic. But because of the particular way the graphic fits within, or on, that structure, what he really needs is a graphic that is 35-7/8-inches by 48-¼ inches in size. “You have to do some research into the type of structure your client owns,” Compton advised.

As well, material types to be incorporated must be discussed.

Is this to be a rigid display? Is it roll-able to make it more shippable? Will it be printed on fabric? “There are all kinds of options, and if you don’t know the right material to use, or the right finishing, again, you could be giving your client a graphic that simply is not going to work for them on the show floor,” he says. “Let’s say the graphic should have magnets on the back, but you put Velcro on the back. It all comes down to knowing what questions to ask of the client.”

Introductory Advice

If he were to advise a newcomer to the trade show and exhibit signage market, Tim Bennett’s first bit of advice might be, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Trade show graphics come in many guises, and varying degrees of difficulty, and many beginners don’t grasp how complicated they can be, said Bennett, co-founder and CEO of Image Options, a Foothills Ranch, CA company that focuses on both trade show/exhibit and retail signage.

“Some of it is simple, but it goes from there to very complex,” he said. Some [newbies] dive in without understanding the full complexity.”

Like Compton, he cited materials and sizing as among the biggest hurdles. If a panel must fit some structure, it must fit exactly, especially now that an enormous quantity of tension fabrics is being used. “You’re working with compound curves, different kinds of supplied hardware,” Bennett said. “Some of the biggest trade show companies in the world sometimes ship their aluminum structures here, to ensure we’re fitting the graphics precisely to those structures. We just finished one over 100 feet long for a show in Geneva, Switzerland.”

Offering a similar perspective is Paul Lilienthal, president of Pictura, a trade show and retail signage specialist based in Minneapolis.

If you want to move into the trade show market, there is much in both the structural and lighting disciplines you will have to absorb. “You’re starting to see more and more LED components being incorporated in the structures, whether walls or hanging systems, to gain more impact,” Lilienthal said.

“There’s a lot of technological elements, whether they be lighting or structural components, that you must become familiar with and execute.”
Another key is ensuring that when producing the graphics, you’re dealing with the proper-sized images, says Ed Zamora, large-format manager with Val Print in Fresno, CA. “When clients are dealing with images to be displayed in large booths, they often don’t give large enough images,” he said.

“They are trying to repurpose something that originally appeared in their brochures. They should have considered that at the start of the campaign, recognizing they would need larger images for their trade show booth.

“They can always downsize that image later for their brochures.”

Fabric versus Rigid

For decades, rigid materials were favored for trade show graphics. But for many reasons, fabrics have made substantial inroads into the industry.

“Fabric is making a big push right now,” said Zamora. “It’s the most cost-effective and versatile material for the new hardware configurations that are coming out. Because it’s lighter, it ships more affordably.

“Also, the fact that it is a material allows it to roll up in small packages for ease of shipment, compared with panels that are bulkier and harder to ship. With fabric, you just roll them up and put them into the actual shipping case of the hardware, as opposed to having to use a separate case for the graphics.”

At Renze Display, fabric represents at least 75 to 80 percent of the trade show graphics the company produces, Compton says. In addition to what he calls fabric’s “huge advantages” in light weight and affordability, there is also the upside of printing gargantuan graphics without worrying about seams. With rigid panels, by comparison, graphics can be no larger than four-by-eight or perhaps five-by-ten feet, before panels have to be combined, leaving a seam to deal with.

But there are considerations that may lead to the blend of both rigid and fabric in certain trade show and exhibit booths, he adds. “Let’s say I’m doing a rental trade show exhibit – one rented from an exhibit house, or the general contractor at a trade show,” he said. “If I’m doing graphics that go onto a rental exhibit, they may only be used one time. It’s going to be less expensive to flatbed print that onto a piece of, say, Gator Board, than to print it on fabric.”

Compton recently produced a rental exhibit that used a combination of rigid and fabric graphics. Created for Tate & Lyle to use at the IFT Show, a food ingredients convention at Chicago’s McCormick Place, it featured some graphics that were destined for use over and over again, and were printed on fabrics.

Other graphics were slated for one-time use, and were printed onto Gator Board. ‘It’s just that if I had to pack up that Gator and ship it from show to show, it’s going to get damaged pretty quickly,” Compton says, adding that combining materials took nothing from the effect. “It still looks beautiful,” he reported.

Bennett, a native of the United Kingdom, reports that fabric is even more popular in Europe than in the United States, both in trade show and retail.

“We’ve been slower to adopt it,” he noted. “You can create huge tension fabric walls, than when taken down take up a fraction of the space at far less weight. And a lot of people want vignettes in their large trade show spaces, where you walk from a business area to a sample area to a demonstration area. You can create these vignettes much more easily with fabric.”

Newcomers to the market must get up to speed not just on fabric but on the latest developments in LED lighting. Like Lilienthal, Bennett is seeing LED lighting eagerly embraced. “You can get a very dramatic look,” he said. “We ship the LED lighting in strips and build them on site . . . It looks so dramatic.”

Issues of Installation

As to whether to handle installation yourself or outsource it to experts, the consensus strongly favors the latter course. Much will depend not only on type of exhibit, but the venue where that exhibit will be displayed, Compton said.

“There are many trade shows where you are not allowed to actually set up your own exhibit,” he reported. “But you are allowed in those cases to provide a supervisor. So we have a crew of installation experts here who travel the country and supervise installation of larger exhibits where we have to hire union labor in a larger city. Small- to mid-size PSPs should contract it out. They don’t have the manpower to put people out at the show, when they could be in the plant turning out more graphics. Most times, installation is provided by the exhibit house.”

Lilienthal also feels installation is best left to experts. “Either you’re in the exhibit space, where you’re doing a lot of the installation and dismantlement and all the logistics, freight and coordinating of installation crews, or you‘re not. Most print providers are not going to go that far,” he said. “They’re not set up to do it.”

But then he added one caveat, which should hearten PSPs willing to take scalable approaches in becoming full-service providers of trade show and exhibit signage. More and more print providers are working with fabrication companies, whether in the extrusion or structure business, to provide clients the total solution, as opposed to just the graphic element, he reported.

“People are looking for the quality and execution and print expertise,” he said. “They’re also looking for one source, one provider.”