Material matters

New stand-building technologies mean that exhibitors have a wide choice when displaying their goods, but while the newer systems have their advantages, older structures should not be ignored, says Paul Gander

The aesthetics of an exhibition stand should not be ignored: from the materials used to the stand’s staff, first impressions are everything.

Interaction between staff training and stand design is one of the subtler facets of exhibition strategy. It does not matter how much you spend on the latter – if you ignore the former, your stand will lose its impact.

Martin Ralton, partner at DJB Exhibitions, sums up the problem: “All too often, you see a wonderful exhibition stand manned by dummies. You see two stands side by side, where both have spent the same amount of money, but one is staffed by happy, cheerful, proactive people, and the other by people sitting down and waiting for visitors to come to them.”

Although anyone who has visited or exhibited at a show would agree with the implication that stand staff need to be trained for exhibitions, this is not to say that design is irrelevant. Far from it: size may not be everything, but a sophisticated stand can successfully project the company’s image and that of its brands.

Like any other aspect of marketing, stand design is subject to fashion trends. To some extent this is a reflection of the economic background. Even design-led shows such as Top Drawer have been moving in the direction of simpler, minimalist stands, says Ralton. “In my personal view, hospitality has taken a dive, and has not been replaced by anything else on the stand,” he adds.

Revolutionary tactics?

This move to simpler stand design may help to explain the lack of revolutionary new technologies in this sector. What has changed, in Ralton’s opinion, is that systems which might once have been considered “revolutionary” are becoming more accessible.

He cites the example of audio-visual technology, recalling the days when companies used to stack individual televisions into a video wall. “You rarely see that now. Today, projection and 42-inch plasma screens are much more widely available,” he says.

The same is true of graphics. Digital printing, in particular, allows images to be generated in formats up to six or seven metres wide. The final result is usually reasonably priced, says Ralton, and means companies no longer have to tile larger displays from a number of different panels. He estimates that while the previous system of conventional print on to foamed PVC might cost about £100 a square metre, this type of digital process on mesh will cost just £20.

Read the large print

The importance of digital printing in design is confirmed by exhibition specialist Nimlok. Again, the company points out that it is not so much a question of a newly available technology, but of a more widely available one. Nimlok graphics manager Garry Clement-Boggis says: “More suppliers have appeared, and this has tended to drive the cost down. Often these are spin-offs from the original bureaux, with an attitude of ‘I’ll do it more cheaply than the other guy.’ Unfortunately, in many cases they have also driven down quality. Degradation has been masked by the fact that the presses themselves have improved, but the output can often be below par.”

Clients need to understand the difference between a quality digital print and a poor one, says Clement-Boggis. All too often, the colours are not even light-fast, or lose their clarity after stands have been put up and down at only a few venues.

Ironing out the creases

Nimlok has its own portable display system, Compact Image, which uses digital printing on fabric. The fabric pop-up, which the company claims is a UK first, was introduced less than a year ago. In this case, the inks are bonded to the fabric, and so are not worn away by continual use. The fabric’s make-up reduces creasing.

Pop-ups – self-supporting panels that usually need the graphics to be attached separately – have been around for some time and they are being challenged in some smaller-scale exhibition formats by the banner stand. This is an even simpler concept, which combines a T-piece with a draped banner. DJB’s verdict on this approach is “very cheap, but effective”.

For DJB, the pop-up may be yesterday’s news, but Ralton agrees that the concept has evolved considerably in terms of lightness and speed of preparation and dismantling, while also managing to build in greater strength. “The old pole-and-panel systems are dying because of pop-ups,” he says. “Even smaller companies can use them at the bigger shows, combining two or three of them, and putting them up and down themselves. They have established a very good market position – and I’m all in favour of them.”

One company unlikely to flinch when linking the terms “revolutionary” and “pop-up” is Clip. Its Apollo system is a development along the lines suggested by Ralton: lighter and more portable than traditional constructions. This new generation of pop-up does away with magnetic bars and replaces them with magnetic nodes. “This considerably reduces the weight to 16kg,” says Angelique Martin of Clip’s marketing department. “However, it remains as stable and strong as traditional pop-ups.”

Framing hell

Clement-Boggis admits that, as a graphics expert, his view might be biased, but he maintains that when it comes to pop-ups, too much attention is generally paid to the frame. He says: “A fundamental point is that it’s all about graphics. The frame is simply about keeping that image off the ground.” Most conventionally designed pop-ups require several polyester or PVC panels to be attached separately. “Of course, there is the ‘wow’ factor when the frame goes up in seconds, but with our system, the graphics go up with the frame.”

Not that Nimlok ignores the underlying structure of a stand. Its Nimtruss system is based on a lightweight folding gantry, offering what the supplier calls “a flexible vehicle for magnetic and fabric graphics”. According to Nimlok, this system can be used to link extrusions, panels, cable displays, literature dispensers, lighting, tabletops, counters and various other stand elements.

In the larger type of stand structure, exhibitors are understandably looking for an approach that manages to combine distinctive style with contained cost. As Martin puts it: “People are looking for a maximum return on investment. They are looking for modularity, but at the same time they want to appear completely different from their competitors.”

Like other systems on the market, Clip’s Classic modular package allows clients to substitute new graphics and rearrange the stand modules from a previous show in an original way. Given the high cost of exhibiting at some of the bigger events, any strategy which reduces the additional expense of stand design and build while still allowing continual evolution is clearly going to be a popular option.

The basic Classic system has the same principles as when it was introduced more than 20 years ago. But again, there has been some evolution in terms of the lightness of the materials and the ease with which it can be erected. Similarly, the range of panel sizes and accessories has expanded considerably.

Old dogs, new tricks

A new twist on the old “modular” theme comes from Quick2, a company established by marketing communications company 2heads. Having accumulated a large stock of exhibition equipment over the years, the parent company decided that it could refurbish these materials for today’s shows, combining them with new finishes and graphics.

Project manager Dan Stubbs does not like the term “recycling”, but in a business environment that favours responsible attitudes towards finite resources, the concept is nothing to be ashamed of. He explains: “The more traditional ways of building stands are often more durable, to the point where we can re-use them. We do look at the new materials and technologies available, but we will tend to stick to the basics, because they’ve been tried and tested.”

Stubbs adds: “Given the budget cuts in the industry, as well as in many cases the smaller number of exhibitors, we wanted to come up with a cost-effective solution.”

Caught in the Web

An important part of Quick2’s appeal, Stubbs believes, derives from its use of the Web. He says: “We have been quite bold in the way we’ve approached it, posting the costings on our website to build, deliver and put up specific designs of stand around Europe.” Visitors to the site are able to see particular stand samples from different angles and, if they decide to use the company’s services, the briefing and design process can be carried out online. As the company’s name suggests, speed is also a vital ingredient in the mix, helped by the fact that no stand component has to be built from scratch.

While the company itself and its broad approach to the exhibitions market are both new, many of the materials forming the backbone of its stands are anything but.

Though it may not have quite the same pedigree as the timber frame, Clip takes a similar view of its Classic modular system. As the company puts it: “Despite many innovations, some exhibition products are timeless.”

Clearly, however much the new stand-building technologies may impress, the old materials and systems are not about to disappear.

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