Fabric exhibits transcend economic and environmental concerns for a natural fit in a tight market.
By Barb Ernster
No one disputes the fact that the exhibits market is hurting, but exhibit builders are not dismayed. They’re adapting to new demands for efficient, economical and longer-lasting designs with sustainable and changeable features. And fabric is part of the overall solution.
With budgets being cut and every expense scrutinized, customers are concerned with value and return on investment even more than in previous years, says Shelly Alex, vice president of sales and marketing at Moss Inc. in Belfast, Maine. “In response to this we have given our customers tools to use that help them show their management how face-to-face marketing and the use of fabric really make sense in this downturn. We also have put an emphasis on delivering solutions that are budget minded to help exhibitors lower their overall cost of ownership.”
A large percentage of the booths at Exhibitor 2009 in Las Vegas, Nev. integrated fabric into extrusions as well as the typical hanging signs and banners to promote brands, Alex adds. “How fabrics interact with hard wall structures is evolving and moving fast, and the use of different ways to utilize fabric is definitely growing. Fabric is everywhere.”
The economy is a big concern for customers of KSK Visual Ingenuity, headquartered in Solon, Ohio, and the use of fabric is an outgrowth of that, says Steven Gazdag, KSK president. Smaller budgets mean smaller booths and more focus on one-on-one selling in private meeting rooms, so customers are turning to fabric to create cost-effective, reusable environments. KSK started using fabric for exhibit and environmental solutions more than five years ago for its visual appeal, color, texture, ability to twist, stretch and form into different shapes, and enhance with backlighting and graphics. New fire-retardant fabrics allow them to meet the safety requirements for use on ceilings and walls. In fact, KSK used a fabric in an exhibit that dropped from the ceiling, disintegrated when wet and doused a fire below.
Event companies, too, are using fabric for its breathable and washable features, and easy setup and teardown. Fabric has been widely used in the European exhibit market, says Gazdag, but the U.S. is catching up as people become more aware of its benefits.
“A retail store chain that normally puts high gloss photos of their products in their stores is now looking at fabrics. A lot of times a client is going to reuse the display year after year and we create timeless pieces that they can reuse, or add to if needed. We’re selling a lot of fabric frames with finishing methods where you can change out the fabric easily,” says Gazdag, referring to KSK’s line of AdvantEdge Tension Fabric Frame Systems. The systems combine eco-friendly aluminum tubing and extrusion frames with grand format, dye-sublimated fabric graphics to create customized display structures. Industries, including exhibit, tradeshow and interior design, are selecting tension fabric frame systems for their reusable and cost-saving benefits.
Selling sustainable systems
Economic and environmental concerns are forcing exhibit producers to be smart about exhibit design and find efficient ways to make things work, says Joel Chaiken, director of marketing at Nimlok in Niles, Ill., a display and exhibit producer for more than 30 years. Nimlok produces a system of standardized parts that can create custom-designed exhibits that are versatile, portable, easy to install and disassemble, and they pack flat and light for lower-cost shipping. The company started incorporating printed fabric into its structures about seven years ago—a market that has greatly expanded.
“Fabric exhibits look fantastic, are clean and vivid, but can also be refreshed so you can keep the structure but swap out the graphics with updated images,” says Chaiken. “It’s amazing what the world of fabric has opened up. When you combine versatile materials with talented innovative designers, the results are pretty dramatic.”
Nimlok’s graphics manager, Robert Young, says fabric’s capabilities are driving new solutions in exhibits. The sheer number of new fabrics on the market, advances in printing on fabric and fabric’s flexibility allows exhibit producers to create displays that sometimes don’t even look like fabric, and produce massive exhibits with seamless displays, high resolution graphics and concealed framing so that they look like solid structures.
“By combining our dye-sub transfer process with the huge variety of fabrics available to us, we can effectively integrate high quality fabric graphics with complex custom shapes. This results in unique structures that can truly mirror our clients’ brands,” says Young. “We’ve been experiencing significant growth in our fabric graphics area and that has influenced our product development efforts.”
Rent versus own
Nimlok is experiencing new growth in rental exhibits, which allow companies on tight budgets to create a customized look without incurring capital expenses, storage and maintenance costs. The company designs exhibits using a system of purchased or rented custom modular components, or a hybrid of the two. For companies on even stricter budgets, when new or rented exhibit solutions are not an option, Nimlok offers their clients the ability to simply refresh graphics for their current exhibit structures.
Transformit in Gorham, Maine, is also seeing more rental business, as well as rentals for exclusive exhibits where companies host their own show. “Hardly anyone is building new exhibits. They’re either renting or using old exhibits because customers want more bang for their buck and they can’t afford the extravagant designs right now,” says Transformit founder, Cindy Thompson. “Cash is king and people don’t want to let go of it.”
According to Thompson, everyone is using fabric so it’s beyond a trend now, but not everyone can do it right, citing the lack of creativity in some exhibits. However, with all the new developments in fabric, over the last five years, Thompson says there are many more things exhibitors can do with fabric. New meshes, cottons and polyesters meet specific and multiple needs—light blocking, sound diffusing, cooling, texturing, graphic imaging, dirt repellent, self cleaning, as well as being biodegradable, recyclable and fireproof.
Lighting and sound and fabric
Three years ago, Transformit started incorporating acoustic and lighting elements into fabric structures, which has created a growing market for them, particularly in permanent exhibits. Most recently the company designed and installed the interior fabric structures with huge lighting elements for sections of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium that opened June 5, 2009.
KSK Visual Ingenuity has combined fabric with acoustic panels and other elements to absorb and deflect sound. The company draped fabric images along the glass ceiling in a hospital atrium, which helped to control the sound traveling down a 30-foot hallway. “At one point you could hear the conversations of people on each end,” says Gazdag. The fabric solution solved the problem.
The architecture industry is advancing ways that light and sound can be used in buildings without the use of power, and fabrics go hand-in-hand with those solutions. That will eventually play into the exhibits market as well, says Thompson, who is currently looking at developing a solar-powered exhibit.
The green evolution
Jeff Baker, president of Image4, a fabricator, exhibit builder and interior selling-space designer in Manchester, N.H., says his clients typically begin the conversation around cost control, but there are a number of clients for whom a green strategy is core to their public positioning. About five years ago, an ad agency asked them to build an environmentally-sensitive, sustainable trade show display. That project got them into the green side of the industry.
“Basically we said, ‘huh? What’s that?’” says Baker. “It’s more evolutionary thinking than revolutionary. Tension fabrics have been with us for years. Using it as a sustainable solution by managing the build process, reducing weight and packaging size, and putting some thought into how you’re going to deploy the product is evolutionary. What we’ve learned is the real denominator in any conversation about sustainability is carbon footprint, what are you doing to reduce greenhouse gases?”
When Image4 was recognized for “Greenest Trade Show Producer in America” by Inc. magazine, Baker wanted some third-party credibility behind what it had accomplished, both operationally and in products for sustainable best practices, but found no real definition of sustainability in the industry. He is trying to develop sustainability guidelines for the exhibit industry—similar to the LEED guidelines for the building industry—by October.
The timing is ripe. A study last year, titled “Inconvenient Booth,” by the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association, found that over 50 percent of companies have, or will soon issue, sustainability purchasing guidelines for their exhibit programs.
“That’s huge,” says Baker. “We’re an $85 billion trade show industry; that says that somewhere around $30 billion is going to be directed toward sustainability, so the conversation is definitely getting bigger.”