Innovation drives the future for printers working with the hospitality industry.
By Janet Preus
An awning for a hotel entrance, or banners for a resort’s special promotion are applications that have typically sustained the relationship between printers and hospitality businesses. But with the growth of digital printing, they are just the beginning of a long list of possibilities.
Print shops are finding lucrative partnerships printing fabric for faux ceilings, backdrops, uniforms for waiters, table covers and napkins. Have you heard of acoustical art? What about custom gaming table felts, props and costumes for theme parks, column wraps and floor graphics? “Most people in the hospitality trade or design trade don’t even know that it’s feasible to do these things,” says Sanjay Sakhuja, owner of Digital Pre-Press International (DPi), San Francisco, Calif., which offers multiple printing services. He says that even though hospitality is not a segment Dpi focuses on, it is significant, and almost all of his business is word-of-mouth.
“We do everything from awnings and banners down to making bikinis and dresses,” he says. “Whatever people can dream up, we can make it.” Wedding planners, who orchestrate elaborate affairs in hotels and resorts, are among those dreaming up new ways to take advantage of digital printing’s capabilities. A single project could include chiffon scarves as gifts for the guests, table covers and napkins, backdrops, even runners on which the bride and groom will walk.
These new projects are for fairly high-end occasions, but Sakhuja says that even very elaborate projects are far less expensive than they were when the work was all done by hand. This means more people will be looking for these services, and a savvy special occasion planner, hotel, resort or restaurant will already have a relationship with a print shop.
More, and more unique
“We as a business have to start to look for new customers,” Sakhuja says. “Innovation is one way to get new customers. Our strategy is to provide more and more services that are unique rather than more that is the same. That means providing full service.
“If you just printed fabric, that’s not enough,” Sakhuja continues. “You have to be a tailor and a printer. You need to know a lot more about what you’re producing. You have to give a finished good to the customer, because that is what the customer is looking for.”
That kind of innovative attitude motivated Pictographics in Las Vegas, Nev., to launch a new product this winter, designed to address acoustics issues with a beautiful and practical fabric solution. Craig Miller, president and CEO, says, “The one thing that has been neglected in so many environments is when it is acoustically unpleasant.” The pervasive use of hard surfaces and high ceilings, with only chair pads and the occupants’ clothing to muffle the sound, prompted Miller to develop what he calls “acoustical art”—an acoustical board wrapped with “absolutely gorgeous images.”
“We’re working on having an image library of thousands of images,” Miller says. “Customers will also be able to upload their own. We’re looking for a product that has more bang for the buck, because you’re not just getting a pretty image on your walls.”
Quality still counts
Quality too, especially in this unusually difficult business climate, is critical to longevity. Miller says they are strictly a word-of-mouth company with no sales force. “What we strive to do is tell the difference between our products and others,” he says. “There are people who do dye sub, and there are people who really do dye sub.”
There is still growth for some traditional applications. i2eye Graphics in Cincinnati, Ohio, prints awnings almost exclusively, partly as a sub-contractor for Queen City Awnings. “It’s certainly growing,” says manager Dave Nelson, “especially now with people concerned about energy.” More hotels, and especially restaurants are using awnings, and more architects include awning plans in their specs. “When you add the graphics to it, it’s advertising and often less expensive than going to a sign company for a wooden sign,” Nelson says.
The innovation in Nelson’s business is in the method used to put graphics on awnings. He’s found success with the Sunbrella Graphics System from Glen Raven, Glen Raven, N.C., which uses a 3M Scotchcal film. For small graphics in particular, he says it is cost effective and much easier than hand painting.
For digital graphics, printing occurs on the 3M IJ-180-10 non-comply digital print film. The graphic is then applied to the fabric in the Sunbrella Graphic System machine, which uses heat and vacuum to achieve the warranted bond.
Cost effective advertising
Michael Plucinsky, general manager at Banner Connection, Phoenix, Ariz., says at least 60 percent of its business is in the hospitality trade. “We do a lot with the local hotels,” he says, and with conventions and trade shows filling up the resorts, winter is his busy time. Banner Connection produces everything from table covers to promotional items, but banners are the company’s mainstay, even in a tight economy. “It seems that people revert to advertising more, and banners are a less expensive way to advertise,” Plucinsky says.
The biggest challenge is meeting deadlines, particularly when information arrives last minute for very large events, such as the Fiesta Bowl. A New Year’s Eve party for 150,000 people, a parade and other events, in connection with the bowl game, produces large orders for banners that are all custom work.
Bruce Flora, owner of Kiteman Productions in Kissimmee, Fla., says the bulk of his business is in hospitality, but it’s not always producing the usual applications. Much of Kiteman Productions’ repeat business comes from Florida’s theme parks, where Flora has been supplying custom props for Disney and costumes for Sea World, in addition to his banner business. It was custom kites for elaborate kite shows that got the company off the ground, but it was a good eye for an opportunity that helped it grow. About 16 years ago, Flora started making “feather banners” out of leftover kite scraps. First it was banner orders for Disney World; then they discovered dye sublimation and started printing on them.
Big and little niches
“Our niche is one banner to a hundred, or so,” says Flora, including large projects for major events in cities across the country. “I just love to see what can be done with fabric to change how people feel.”
Kiteman Productions does all its own graphics and sewing, but contracts out the printing. Flora says they are looking forward to having their own press, though. “We’ve been studying and researching, but haven’t taken the leap,” he says. “It’s now becoming easier, but it’s not as simple as it looks. Our clients insist on exact color matches.”
Kiteman Productions has a turnkey arrangement with the theme parks that makes meeting installation deadlines easier, but there are certain protocols that must be kept. “I have a whole training program on how to handle themselves on Disney property,” Flora says.
The Disney parks alone have 65,000 employees, and very high turnover, so staying on top of communications is an added challenge. “I could have someone here full time just to let someone know there that we’re here,” he says. Just at Walt Disney World there are eight to 10 conventions every day.
Business, however, is not what it has been in the past, with a dramatic change in the summer of 2008. “It’s like somebody flipped a switch and turned everything off,” Flora says. He cut costs and laid off employees to cope with the situation.
Ad Graphics in Pompano Beach, Fla., has also seen business fall off. “We’ve definitely seen a downturn in business,” says president Rich Thompson. “In theory you want to tell them to advertise more.” That doesn’t necessarily happen, though, with customers facing tighter budgets. Ad Graphics chooses diversity to flourish, producing window graphics, column wraps, awnings, banners, and floor graphics for hospitality customers, most of it subcontracted. “It runs the whole gamut,” Thompson says. “Usually if there’s a theme or promotion, we’ll do everything. It makes sense.”
A range of services and high quality are the constants for businesses that can weather hard times—and the ability to get the job done. “We need to do whatever we need to do to go the extra mile to make sure it happens,” Thompson says.