Getting noticed

Cheap modular stands or more expensive custom-built ones? Exhibitors at trade shows are faced with this dilemma, but which represents the best value for money? By Ian Whiteling

The technology’s here to make such dreams reality, so why isn’t designing your exhibition stand this easy? A virtual stand may only be restricted by the bounds of an exhibitor’s imagination, but visitors can’t touch it, smell it, pick up products from it or interact directly with people on it, as they can at a live show. And until all these things can be experienced in a virtual environment, we’re stuck with trying to make stands create an impact using boring old plastic and metal.

Stand design is big business, with the modular and custom-built camps slugging it out for a slice of your exhibition budget. But how do you decide upon which route to take?

Stand and deliver

Of course, each side defends its corner. “Custom-built schemes will always have the edge over modular stands,” claims Andrea Green, new business development manager at Pocknell Studio, which specialises in designing custom-built stands for clients such as the British Airports Authority and the Chartered Society of Designers.

“Floor space can be maximised,” she continues, “and therefore make more of a visual impact. Any corporate identity design can be neatly incorporated into the architecture, providing the whole story – this is particularly relevant when clients are advertising products or a specific piece of equipment. It is difficult to integrate proprietary modular exhibition components with an exhibitor’s specific design requirements as differentiation should be a priority.”

Emma Swales, marketing manager at modular stand designers Nimlok, begs to differ. “There are no drawbacks to modular stands,” she says. “They offer huge flexibility in terms of design and reconfiguration. Graphic technology allows modular stands to achieve huge impact and, with the ability to add customised elements, design limitations are minimal.

“With a modular stand, clients have the opportunity to preview their stand before the show so they can be confident it does what it needs to do. Furthermore, stands can be redesigned time and time again and used in different configurations, depending on the space and orientation booked by the client.”

Both Green and Swales make valid points. The truth is that both types of stands have their benefits and drawbacks. The best place to go for a more objective opinion is a design company such as Optimum Design & Build, part of the Opex group, which offers both types of stand.

Making exhibitions of themselves

The company’s operations manager, Toby Durrant, evaluates the case for each option: “The benefits of using a modular stand are that they are cheaper and easy to configure. If an exhibitor books a shell-scheme stand – a standard modular construction – with the organiser, all they need to do is arrive the day before the show opens and dress the stand. They will then have a usable space from which to promote their company. The drawback is the lack of impact. If an exhibitor books a shell-scheme stand, there is only so much that can be done with it and it will struggle to stand out from the crowd.

“This can affect the amount of interest in the stand and have a negative impact on visitors’ perceptions of the company. If there are two companies in direct competition at a show, one is shell scheme, the other custom built, the visitor will walk away with a better impression of the custom-built stand and therefore the company using it to exhibit.

“Custom build is more expensive and time-consuming for exhibitors as they have to meet with design and build companies to brief on the design. However, these are the only drawbacks. The main advantages are impact and perception. A well-designed stand will stand out, therefore drawing more interest from visitors. Exhibitors also get the chance to make the stand fit in with their product, as opposed to making their product fit in with the stand.

“A bespoke stand can be designed to carry through the corporate image, using colours and shapes from logos and promotional literature, whereas there’s only so much tweaking you can do with a shell scheme.”

However, there is another benefit with modular stands, as Swales points out. “They are designed for shipping and transportation as well as storage, making movement easy and cost-effective,” she says. “There is no restriction on moving the stand from venue to venue, or indeed across continents, as the stand is stored and shipped in cases and crates designed for that very purpose.”

So if you want to exhibit widely you’ll have to think of the trade-off between not making such an impact by using a modular stand, but having the flexibility to move easily from show to show, even between countries, while saving money. Of course if money is no object, you can get your stand custom-built for each show.

David Foster, chairman and managing director of field marketing company Raisley, is often called upon to evaluate the type of exhibition stand that will work best for clients having to weigh up the pros and cons of using modular or custom built.

“We use the modular approach with a number of clients, primarily as it enables them to make their budgets work really hard,” says Foster. “The modular stand can be designed to fit a variety of different spaces or occasions with little additional budget allocated to new graphics. Bespoke stands have a more grounded feel to them. The choice comes down to the feel that the brand wants the customer to experience. The use of stock walling, possibly with steel frameworks or more ambitious structures using a range of materials, can produce an individualistic look.”

Raisley has produced both modular and custom-built stands for tea company Twinings. “We have created a range of modular options for Twinings that enable the company to dominate a space to the greatest effect, while still being able to provide high-quality product samples and communicate effectively,” explains Foster. These can be used in a variety of environments. But the modular approach wouldn’t have worked when Twinings needed a presence at the Hampton Court Flower Show.

“In this instance we created a tea garden,” says Foster, “as it was the only way that we could get in to sample at a show where the visitors closely matched the brand’s target market.”

Practical makes perfect

Optimum’s work for Adobe satisfied a similar specific need at Government Computing 2003, as Durrant explains: “The client wanted something that stood out, gave a good impression of the company and was practical. The main aim of the stand was to run demos of Adobe products for visitors during a number of 15-minute seminars run by their speakers. The design provided a seminar area for the demos and had plasma screens on the exterior of the stand to further attract passing interest. The stand was the joint winner of the best stand in the show competition.”

Meanwhile, Optimum’s design for the Japanese pavilion at IFE 2003 reveals a situation where a modular stand is more appropriate, even without taking into account cost and portability, as it allowed several companies to exhibit under a themed area.

“The client wanted space for 30 stand partners,” explains Durrant. “We came up with a modular design that provided a uniform booth for each partner, but which was themed in an overall style. The use of red and white, as well as using signage on the fascias, gave the stand a Japanese feel. The booths created a good platform for the individual partners to adapt their own area to suit their individual product with the use of their own graphics and product displays.”

Increasingly popular in the exhibition world is a hybrid of modular and custom-built stands, widely known as custom modular, which many of the purely modular stand design companies offer, such as Clip, Nomadic and Nimlok.

By using custom modular it’s possible to increase impact by adding specific customised features. Nimlok’s work with Neopost, the global supplier of electronic mailing solutions, used this technique to create a striking stand that Kim Sadler from the company’s corporate partnerships department described as “different from most at Post Expo and certainly more futuristic than our immediate competitors.”

Guitar solo

In the end, what matters is that you need to stand out. Clive Morton, director of MB Media, organises the London Guitar Show, which provides a series of modular units for its exhibitors with smaller budgets. He says: “You can make even the simplest modular stand work for you if you use it creatively and impose your company’s image upon it to stand out from your competitors.”

However, before you all dash off to your nearest modular stand company, happy in the knowledge that your coffers will be overflowing with cash and that you’ll have an easy time preparing your stand, it may be worth bearing the following in mind. Don’t forget that exhibiting plays a major part in this. If you’re investing time and money promoting your company at an exhibition, you need to make sure that this money is working as hard as possible.

So before deciding on the type of stand you want, work out exactly what you want your stand to do. Think about how your competitors presented themselves last year, for example, and make sure that your stand is distinct. Then find out which stand design company can come up with the best solution, whether it specialises in modular, custom-made or a hybrid of the two.

Make your decision based on how the options presented best deliver your company’s message, not on how cheap you can get the stand for or how easy it is to use.

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