Since the mid-Eighties, trends in the exhibition industry have fluctuated, partly due to the vagaries of the economy which influenced marketing budgets, but also due to the technical developments in stand construction.
The economic boom ten years ago resulted in increased investment in custom-built stands – companies could afford to throw money at elaborate designs to be used only once then dumped in a skip. But the subsequent slump saw a switch towards the so-called modular, off-the-shelf systems which offered both a lower initial cost and re-use, possibly in different configurations.
Only now that marketing budgets have started to grow again, have the tables turned full circle, with custom built stands being the order of the day again.
“In an ideal world everyone would use purpose built stands,” says Adrian Broadbent, event director of such exhibitions as Incentive International and ECTS (a major electronics show). “At a show like ECTS where you have Sega, Sony and Nintendo vying for attention, purpose built stands are the norm. But where the budget won’t stretch that far, modular stands provide a very useful and viable alternative – they take you a few steps beyond the shell scheme.”
However, for many companies there is a middle ground which offers a combination of the benefits of both as Greg Billingsley, director of sales and marketing at exhibition specialists WBP, points out. “The reality is that a mix of custom built and modular designs are now being used more frequently. Although marketing budgets have grown, the recession has taught clients that it is possible to make them stretch further, so people are no longer throwing money around on big one-off projects unless there is no alternative to achieve a specific objective. If it is possible to re-use a stand or components from it, they will.
“The other big change is that modular stands have improved enormously in the past few years. No longer do they all look like the same flimsy constructions – sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a stand is modular or custom built. The combination of modular and custom elements can give a stand a unique look with plenty of impact and still be used many times over.”
So what are the changes to modular systems that have created this shift?
“The production of the shape of a stand is the main area where modular systems have improved,” says Steve Hill, marketing manager of modular specialists Academy Expo. “Modular systems have traditionally been square and boxy but now it is possible to add curves to create aesthetic shapes, and produce weight bearing structures to make the stands both more substantial and flexible in what can be added.”
Modular products have also evolved to accommodate laminated panels, says Hill. A wood backing for laminates used to be needed, which entailed the added cost of buying and cutting wood, higher on-site construction costs and greater weight and bulk added to the transport and, possibly, storage charges.
The big benefit to those on a budget, according to Hill, is that they no longer have to compromise. “The increased variety of modular products, coupled with the advances in printing technology means it is often possible to be presented with a stand design and actually be able to put it together using mostly modular materials.”
This means that companies which have always exhibited on a modest budget can continue to do so but with stands that are the shape and colour they want. To get this exactly right, the custom built element is often quite small, such as the building of reception counters or unusual shapes to reflect the company image or its products.
Those companies that have traditionally specialised in producing custom built stands, however, believe there is still a significant difference between what they have to offer and the modular alternative. They claim that modular input remains minimal.
“The first point is that just because we’re in the custom business doesn’t mean that what we build is not modular or cannot be re-used,” says Martin Brooks, operations director of Cockade International.
“Generally we always propose to a client that they will get a better display if it is designed for several shows because the budget will stretch further. It is important to discuss this at the outset because it will influence the design. If, for example, a client wants a large seamless wall section – this will usually be done using material glued to a series of wooden boards. It is very difficult to re-use such a display because the labour that goes into carefully dismantling the structure is actually greater than that needed to build it in the first place,” says Brooks.
“One of the most common problems we have is when clients say they want to re-use a stand after they have seen it built. Where this happens we do sometimes use modular elements but they can be difficult to disguise. One of the problems with modular systems is that the joints generally show. In some cases we can cover them but on the whole, clients who want us to go to such lengths want purpose built anyway.”
Brooks points out that the custom build industry has also changed a lot in recent years, and although the systems may differ from the off-the-shelf modular equipment, there is more common ground between the two.
“The materials, tools and equipment have changed a lot. We use PVC and vinyl coverings a lot more – you don’t see a lot of wet decorating at exhibitions now. The construction techniques have also changed and even in cases where the actual joining techniques are © unchanged, using staples and screws for example, the introduction of pneumatic staple guns and battery powered screwdrivers means that construction efficiency is often on a par with modular stands. Indeed build-up times have halved in the past ten years.”
Brooks is keen to emphasise that he is not against modular systems per se, rather that they fill a particular gap. “Those pushing modular systems are right about the potential re-use for seminars and displays in libraries, hotels and client locations. But I think exhibiting is like show business – clients want to do something special – and despite the improvements to modular construction, if you have a line of them, they do tend to look similar, so the one that’s different will stand out.”
Trevor Land, group exhibitions director of the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, believes there are several reasons why a mixture of construction techniques and re-usable stands are becoming more common. “I think that irrespective of whether systems are modular or purpose built there is definitely a move towards re-use. This has been the case in Europe where it has become an environmental issue because, apart from the wasteful aspects involved in one-off construction, many stands actually contained toxic materials and disposal was seen as a problem and an extra cost,” says Land.
Health and safety is another argument in favour of using materials which, if not actually modular, at least remain constant, as Land points out: “One of the interesting results of the development in CAD-CAM systems in the exhibition industry is that although this makes both bespoke and modular design a lot simpler and quicker, it has also had an effect on the ease with which health and safety issues can be evaluated.
“If modular elements are stored in the computer with all their health and safety details established, it can make it a lot easier to produce the ideal stand, safe in the knowledge that certification by local authorities will not be a problem. In this respect it makes sense for custom build operators to introduce tried and tested components because it can cut administration.”
These factors have to be balanced by the fact that custom build costs have fallen in real terms and that, as budgets grow, the trade off between re-use and impact could tilt the scales further in the direction of custom build.
What is certain, however, is that the two systems are encroaching on each other. Custom build is becoming re-usable, while modular is achieving increasing impact. With the growing tendency to mix and match, the winner could be the end user.