UK companies, on the whole, are not that keen on exhibitions – certainly when compared with their European counterparts, who consider the exercise to be an invaluable part of marketing.
British business cites cost as one of the key reasons for this: staffing a stand costs time which could be better spent doing other things.
This is a strange argument given that the staff who generally occupy a stand are sales staff who are there to meet customers. The other big costs, of course, are hiring the stand space and manufacturing the stand itself.
Although the cost of space is sometimes open to negotiation, it is pretty much a set cost. So the only real room for economic manoeuvre is on the stand, and the best way to get value for money is to ensure that it is reusable, hence the popularity of modular systems.
Jane Stanbridge, marketing manager of Clip Display Systems, says: “Modular systems can be varied for roadshows, conferences, merchandising kits or even a general display in a reception area.
“Expenditure on an exhibition stand, which may be used only three or four times a year, is far easier to justify as an investment which can be used repeatedly throughout the year.”
Modular exhibition equipment has become popular in recent years for several reasons. Apart from the fact that it is generally lower in cost than purpose-built designs, it is also lightweight, easy to set up and requires less storage space.
These factors are all useful to those considering buying for the long term, but there are other considerations which need addressing as Steve Hill, marketing manager of Academy Expo, points out: “The materials needed for long-term use have to be strong. For cable network operator Telewest South West, which wanted to use the stand over a long period, we used a material that was developed originally for making riot shields and bullet proof vests.
“The company wanted to get across its name change from United Artists, explain its cable TV and telephone products, and change its image from that of a business which just digs up roads. Using forms of communication other than face-to-face meetings with the public would have been difficult.
“We configured a structure and graphics that could be used for such varied requirements as product launches, press and sponsorship events, recruitment days, presentations and shopping centre promotions.”
The system needed to be sufficiently flexible to enable elements to be used in up to four events a week simultaneously, or as a complete display for any larger events.
“One of the other great benefits of modular systems is that if the client suddenly finds they want to exhibit at even more venues simultaneously, or if there is a need to expand the stand size, it is easy to add extra sections without losing any impact,” says Hill.
Although few in the exhibition industry would still argue that the only way to achieve real impact is to opt for a custom-built stand, there is no denying that it does offer the chance to produce something that looks original.
The problem is that in the past, these stands have tended to either find their way straight into a skip after one event, or reappear in identical form for a season of events which, like reading the news more than once in the same clothes, is considered bad form. Both custom-built specialists and their clients have, however, realised the value of an alternative approach.
A good example is a stand produced by Cockade International for the Allison Engine Company in the US. Operations director at Cockade Martin Brook says: “The stand was built in the traditional way using soft wood and medium density fibreboard. But we built it to a modular design. The client wanted something with weight and substance not a flimsy construction to create the right impression.
“We had to construct it with enough flexibility to suit a future site, details of which were then unknown. It has now been used in about 15 venues in the US and its versatility was demonstrated when Allison was sold to Rolls-Royce and it was used with a new livery. It proves that, providing it is properly designed, it is possible to custom build in a module manner.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of this approach concerns a big spender in the exhibition industry, Ford. When such companies decide to exhibit, it is not just for a one-off show, but for a pan-European programme costing millions of pounds and running over several years, as Adrian Caddy, creative director at Ford’s design consultant Imagination, points out.
“Ford asked us to develop a look that would last to the year 2000. That look had to be fresh, reflect the company’s brand essence, which includes being ‘ingenious, caring, dynamic and responsible’. Ford also wanted to provide a consistent face at both Tier 1 and Tier 2 (international and local) autoshows,” says Caddy.
Imagination came up with a series of modules that could be re-used without looking like the same stand had been used time and again. The veneered flooring, for example, was designed to configure in different sizes and shapes, large blue shapes could form backdrops at some shows and entrances at others, and the same sheets of glass could create giant display cases, offices within a stand, as well as rear projection screens.
Caddy says: “The idea was to develop a skeleton and skin solution. It had to be flexible, look solid and reflect Ford’s ‘edge design’ – the hard-edged look that is being used on the company’s latest models.
“The modular approach also overcame the physical problems presented by different venues. In some, for example, it is possible to create a two-storey structure but in others the height is restricted. By using modular elements, we were able to create single-storey structures with roof terraces in the halls with low ceilings.”
Derek Cockerill, supervisor of exhibitions and audio visual European marketing communications, explains Ford’s approach to exhibiting: “We believe in a modular approach to our show stands because of the economic benefit it brings and the fact that it enables us to communicate what Ford stands for in a consistent way.
“It is essential that these modules are flexible. They must be capable of maintaining a freshness on the stand design and at the same time be able to reflect local market character and requirements. You will not see an identical Ford stand at the major autoshows but you will see consistency of key elements and values, which reflect the essence of the Ford brand.”
Imagination’s response to Ford’s modular briefs also includes the use of moving images. “The video material is designed to be used on both the small interactive touchscreen systems and for projecting on the large screen,” says Caddy.
Given the exhibition products now available, and the desire to make marketing budgets stretch, modular systems are inevitably becoming more popular. But as there is a wide range of structures there’s an inherent danger that they all look similar. The manufacturers of off-the-shelf equipment will point to the myriad of configurations available.
To stand out at an exhibition requires something that catches the eye, doing the same as everyone else will not help. Using off-the-shelf systems often means the design element is, if not totally removed, then at least downgraded.
However, if reusable exhibition material is done properly it will be designed to project an organisation’s image over the long term. The savings made can then be channelled into a design that grabs the customer’s attention. That is, after all, the purpose of any stand.