Lite Show

Cheaper, lighter exhibits are easing labor and shipping costs
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.

Built on a Budget
Built on a Budget
IEDC's new exhibit



The Indiana Economic Development Corp. wanted a new exhibit for the 2008 Bio International Convention in San Diego, one that made a stronger visual statement than its existing display and better communicated its message and branding. But the IEDC had no extra money in its budget; with what it spent in 2007 on freight and show costs alone, the agency would have had to pay for the design and purchase of the new display, as well as all associated show costs — and rising fuel prices were not helping.

In order for the IEDC to come in on budget, Indianapolis-based Hamilton Exhibits had to make the exhibit lighter and easier to assemble. Designers eliminated heavy wooden storage units and framework within the old exhibit’s canopy (top) and constructed the new display (above, bottom) using an aluminum frame and fabric wall system for its main structure. The new design ships in fewer crates and requires less labor to set up than the old exhibit did, according to Jennifer Carnahan, account manager for Hamilton Exhibits. She says the new exhibit can be assembled and dismantled in nearly a third of the time the previous exhibit required, and drayage costs are 35 to 40 percent lower. -- T.I.

“Businesses don’t see any benefit from spending huge sums of money on freight, drayage or show labor, and I believe [they] should be more focused on the overall cost of their exhibit program,” Hibbs argues. In comparison to the costs of using a similar aluminum extrusion system, Hibbs claims that, if used four times a year for five years, the Lite system could save exhibitors nearly $100,000 over the life of the display, mostly on labor, shipping and maintenance.

The Lite system, which debuted last year, has considerable traction in the European exhibits market, Hibbs notes, but has yet to catch on in the United States.

Meanwhile, other display companies are focusing their energy in similar directions. In March, Birmingham, Ala.-based ExpoDisplays introduced MultiQuad, a lightweight, interchangeable panel system similar to Lite, if more rectilinear, that assembles without the use of tools and packs in cases that can be shipped by FedEx or UPS. Indianapolis-based Searle Exhibit Technologies, which has produced a lightweight structural frame system, Ambidex, since 2003, plans to release an even lighter version, Ambidex LT, within a month. President Tim Searle says the new aluminum, interlocking wall system is half the weight of the current Ambidex system and still strong structurally.

Still others are improving pop-ups, adding elements to give those displays a more custom look. This year, Nomadic has created monitor mounts and acrylic shelving for its Instand pop-up display, which also can be outfitted with elements such as cable-suspended graphics, 3-D signage and fluorescent light boxes. Parsons says Nomadic is investing in other equipment and materials that are lightweight, including durable fabrics and vinyl countertops.

Dave Fugiel, design director for Nimlok, a Niles, Ill.-based exhibits company, says his team is focusing much more on creating exhibits that look elaborate but break down for easy repacking. “We take the whole experience into account, rather than just create a pretty picture,” Fugiel says. Nimlok’s new product, Velocity, which was launched last year, was designed be set up quickly, to save exhibitors on labor costs and help “the guy on the show floor.”

Another buzzword within the industry is a “hybrid” display, which incorporates a pop-up into a larger exhibit. “Hybrid displays, like our DesignLine, offer the sophistication of traditional custom-built exhibits that are far lighter by blending together pop-ups, laminated panels and aluminum extrusion with fabric or rollable graphics and acrylic accessories,” says Nomadic’s Parsons.

Mary Carey, who pioneered the use of tensile fabric in the exhibits industry for Moss Inc. and who now runs her own company, Launch!, out of Westchester County, N.Y., believes the industry is again at a turning point. She says that if fuel prices continue to rise, designers will have to turn to new materials for displays. “Working without using petroleum-based textiles like spandex nylons will be the next challenge for the designer,” she predicts.

Carey’s crystal ball shows nonwoven fabrics, which are created from recycled materials, becoming more popular, along with special fire-retardant paper, already being used in Europe. Inflatable exhibits could catch on, too. Using resources that don’t have to be shipped — air or water — could become more dominant design elements in the future, she says.