The exhibition business – hit hard by the recession – is staging a comeback. Participating in a trade show has always been an expensive way to market your product – but now there is room for cutting costs.

The expenses of space and labour at a show remain constant, but fresh approaches to design, flexible materials and computer technology are combining to bring down the expense of building a stand.

The key to attracting exhibitors is value for money, according to Peter Cole, editor of Exhibition Bulletin. “Exhibitors have cut back on the amount they are spending on stand design,” he says. “Designers have had to be more inventive. One of the big areas in which there has been change is in using modular systems – this option means that a stand can now be designed and built from scratch.”

Traditionally, there are three distinct types of stand: the basic shell scheme, comprising two or three screens and selected furniture; the custom-built stand, which often costs a fortune and is destroyed when dismantled; and the modular stand, a kind of unoriginal half-way house.

However, the gap between modular systems and custom-built stands is closing as suppliers move towards common ground – a stand that is re-usable but looks purpose-built.

“Products available in the modular market have been rather square and ‘boxy’,” says Doug Hill, managing director of supplier Academy Expo.

“This is definitely changing. We can supply curves, a range of architectural features, and there is a wider range of materials. Although these materials may be lightweight, they have a very solid appearance.”

There are two key advantages for exhibitors when using modular systems. The latest ranges look as if they have been custom-built but can be used many times. The stand can be modified, depending on the different environments and budgets for each event.

“For the Hong Kong Tourist Association, we produced a stand that looks custom-built but will last for three years,” says Damian Hutt, project director of Fraser International Exhibitions.

“It has a basic structure but there is a lot of flexibility in both the size and shape, depending on what the client wants for each exhibition.”

Rowland Cobbold, regional director Europe of HKTA, explains why his organisation opted for such a format. “It is cost-effective to use the same basic structure for three years. With these new modular systems we get several advantages. We can develop a degree of consistency in all our stands so that they can be recognised and branded as part of the Hong Kong image. Being modular also means that if there is any wear and tear, it can be remedied at a relatively low cost and, of course, being able to re-use the system in a number

of dif ferent configurations means it can be tailored to a particular event.”

Apart from achieving a distinctive look, custom-built stands are ideal for displaying complex systems. Modular equipment can now tackle this problem, as Bob Tracey, partner at SKA Design Associates explains.

“One of our clients, Autobar Beverage Systems, a vending machine specialist, recently came to us wanting a new stand to reflect its latest product range. The requirements were considerable as it had to incorporate a water supply, compressed air, three-phase mains and a waste system. It also had to be re-usable, easy to assemble, conform to strict safety standards and, of course, it had to be effective.

“Until recently, this would have been very difficult using modular equipment but we were able to produce a design which housed all the systems and at the end of the day looked custom-built but at the price of a modular stand.”

The specialists in custom design have gone on the defensive in the face of this assault on their traditional business.

“We now have a range of pre-designed stands which we offer as part of a package,” says Simon Wilday, chief designer of Clements & Street. “These are aimed at the mid-range exhibitor and, although available as a basic structure, there is a lot of flexibility in the shape, facilities and colours that can be used.

“We are also increasing the amount of custom-built stands with panels and a structure that can be unbolted rather than destroyed so that these elements can be re-used. Often the core of a stand we produce is modular but with personalised display items. The trend in the industry is that both modular and custom-build specialists are moving towards a middle ground which offers better stands at more cost-effective prices.”

At the higher end of exhibition budgets, one company, Park Avenue, is beginning to make waves in its approach to exhibition stand design.

For its client car manufacturer Opel, owned by General Motors, Park Avenue has produced a series of units for the world’s top motor shows to explain the MAXX concept car.

The 22 units produced include a series of three-dimensional microcosms. One, for example, is a model of the car in the front drive of a family house and, using visual trickery, a family scene is played out in 3D.

“The idea in this case was to explain the concept car,” says Derrick Tuke-Hastings, co-chairman of Park Avenue.

“Instead of just saying the car is aimed at ABC1s, the display brings the target market alive. By using a series of these displays we were able to provide an experience and tell a story so, that the message was communicated in an exciting way. The fact that there are 22 modules means that GM can pick and choose modules to suit different shows and audiences throughout the world.”

Park Avenue is also looking at ways to make stands more efficient. “We are keen to introduce the ‘just in time’ concept to stands,” says Tuke-Hastings.

“You pay as much for the space taken up by a brochure cabinet as you do for the main feature of a stand. Why not bring in more brochures as and when needed rather than waste such valuable space? A similar example concerns furniture. At one event, we put out chairs and tables on press day. This made it useful for the client to have lengthy discussions with journalists – the next day we replaced them with something more relevant to trade buyers.”

Park Avenue’s angle on exhibitions – providing something visually stimulating which puts across the message – is one that is often overlooked.

“One of the big mistakes is to hire a stand designer,” says Peter Cotterell, secretary general of the National Exhibitors Association.

“Their chief aim is to produce something that will look good in their portfolio.”

Although Cotterell’s views will longer many in the industry, there are many examples of stands which look good but don’t do the job.

“Exhibitors should be bold and bloody,” says Cotterell “They should get down to one clear message using either words, which in my view work best, or a single large powerful image. A dramatic demonstration of the product also helps and so many stand designers fail to use height – it’s free and enables the stand to stick out from the rest.”

To make such an impression, the single dramatic image – either a blown-up photograph or graphic – has become easier to produce. The use of computer-generated text or manipulation of images combined with electrostatic printing techniques means that large headline banners can be produced quickly and at a relatively low cost.

“Because electrostatic or bubblejet prints can come straight off a computer onto a large roll they are fast to produce and can be large and dramatic,” says Hutt of Fraser International Exhibitions.

“The cost tends to be between a quarter and a tenth of doing the process photographically. The quality is not so high for photographic images but is acceptable for most exhibition use – print is often better because the correct Pantones can be chosen.”

Similarly, technical improvements are being made to materials used in stand construction. Medium density fibreboard (MDF), for example, can be cut into elaborate shapes and coloured to make company logos.

“If we were working for a company making bathroom fittings we could engrave a logo into MDF and give it a marble look finish,” says Wilday.

“There is a much wider variety of materials and finishes now available so the look of a stand is much more sympathetic to the client or the product.”

The range of options for exhibitors is greater than ever. With so much to choose from in terms of cost, design, re-use and dramatic effect, there is no reason why exhibition stands should not be imaginative – or provide value for money.

As Cotterell points out: “All these materials are just building bricks – the key to success is what you do with them.”


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