by Tom Isler | August 19, 2008
Protean’s Lite system exhibit uses lightweight, interchangeable panels to create a custom look.
The confluence of high labor and shipping costs, along with pressure on exhibitors to keep expenses down, is spawning a new generation of creative, affordable trade-show displays that are lightweight, easy to assemble and pack, and more versatile than traditional portable exhibits.

“This is good news for those who want to stick with the portable category,” says Gwen Parsons, senior vice president of Springfield, Va.-based Nomadic Display, which led the “pop-up” display revolution — portable exhibits with a collapsible frame and fabric or graphic panels — in the 1970s.

For companies that can’t afford elaborate custom displays, portable exhibits have long been a cost-effective alternative and, typically constructed of aluminum and fabric, are about as lightweight as exhibits get, which helps save on shipping and drayage. However, over the years, they’ve also been derided by some exhibitors and display companies for looking generic.

But developers have sought to address that concern, as well as focus on aspects other than weight to help exhibitors save on shipping and labor. Lightweight exhibits now have more options for custom elements and can be set up in various configurations for different effects. And they’re still designed to be set up without the use of tools and to fit neatly into containers that are optimized to reduce shipping costs.

One of the most imaginative new products on the market is Lite, a display system from U.K.-based Protean. The building blocks of the displays are small, extremely lightweight, rectangular panels --— made of molded plastic, either flat or with various fixed curvatures — that attach to each other with flexible plastic nodes or hinges. Graphics are preprinted on adhesive-backed vinyl and are wrapped around the panels like advertisements on city buses; thus, they can be replaced easily for different marketing campaigns. Sets of panels can be added or subtracted to fit different footprints, and various extras can be installed, such as monitors, shelves, cabinets or doors.

The Lite system requires a larger investment up front than other portable displays — a 10-by-20-foot kit could cost $30,000 — but Colin Hibbs, one of the designers of the system, says its versatility and ease of use helps clients save on operation costs immediately, particularly because two or three people will be able to set up the booth without tools and, thus, without hired labor in most convention centers.