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Working the show with fabric exhibits

March 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature, Graphics, Markets

Exhibits and displays for trade shows and special events demonstrate the advantages of fabric.

It’s a quiet moment on the exhibit hall floor, an hour before the doors open for the Imprinted Sportswear Show in Long Beach, Calif. From where he stands, Don Keller, CEO and owner of Blue Sky Exhibits LLC in Marietta, Ga., does a 360-degree turn and observes the structures surrounding him. “I would say 50 percent of these booths have fabric being used in a substantial way,” he says. “Probably 75 percent have some sort of fabric graphic element, but 50 percent have a hanging sign for their ID, or super graphics, which are banners that hang from the ceiling with graphics printed on both sides.” Then he reflects on what he likely would have seen five years ago at the same vantage point: “You’d be lucky if 50 percent had fabric in them at all.”

Fabric use in trade show exhibits and as parts of displays has grown dramatically in recent years, due partly to advancements in available materials and printing capabilities, but mostly because of the substantial cost savings to the end-users in terms of hauling, building and storage fees. It’s difficult to find exact statistics that show overall growth of fabric use in this market, but companies that create these displays point to double-digit growth in this segment of their businesses.

“I didn’t do fabric five years ago,” says Geoff Kilmer, president of Photoworks Creative Group in Charlottesville, Va. In the two years his company has worked with fabric, fabric graphics has become 20 percent of his business. “Fabric is really growing in popularity,” he says. “It’s my growth area. I see it growing continually because of its benefits for the end user.”

Fabrics pay off

The primary benefit for the end user is cost savings, say exhibit and display designers. The saving doesn’t come up front; an exhibit booth with extensive fabric use costs about the same to create as one with more traditional materials. However, the lighter-weight, packable materials mean substantial savings in transport and storage costs for exhibit owners.

“Fabric really impacts cost directly,” Keller says. “There are very few building components that make such a substantial impact on the cost of doing a trade show booth.” He’s built booth components out of pine, Masonite and laminate, which is very heavy. “Now we’re building out of aluminum and fabric,” he says.

Keller estimates that the weight difference between a traditional and fabric exhibit booth can save the user about 40 percent on shipping, setup labor and drayage expenses. With these savings, a fabric booth can pay for itself in about three years.

This is also important as some companies look to reduce their carbon footprint, says Sofia Troutman, segment manager for services and solutions at Skyline Exhibits in Eagan, Minn. “There’s also the ability to reuse fabrics where possible and maintain flexibility for the booth,” she says.

There could also be cost-savings in smaller displays, says Kilmer. He designed four graphic panels for Colonial Williamsburg; the largest is 10-by-15 feet. “If they want to update their graphics, they don’t have to tear a mural off the wall, they just pull the fabric off the frame and install another one,” he says. “And they can do it themselves. Change-outs are far less expensive.”

An end-user perspective

At the suggestion of its exhibit design company, global med-tech company Medtronic Inc., Fridley, Minn., began incorporating fabrics into its corporate displays in 2008.

“With rising costs of shipping and drayage, show handling charges have gone up dramatically in the past seven years,” says Sue Huff, director of global conventions at Medtronic. “With that you see more fabric usage in the entire show hall.” Huff was initially lured to fabrics by the cost savings, but is also impressed with the eye-catching results achieved through fabric.

“Fabric is a major design element in Medtronic’s corporate exhibit program for a variety of reasons,” says Tony Erpelding, vice president of creative services for Group Delphi, Medtronic’s exhibit designer. “The first is the grand scale and clean lines we are able to achieve using tension fabric structures.”

Large shapes, he notes, can be created without the support of heavy structures. The Medtronic booth centerpiece, called the “core lantern,” is a large, overhead structure illuminated from within. “It creates a warm, inviting environment, perfect for the informal meeting and hospitality functions below,” Erpelding says. “This is something we could only achieve with fabric.” Because fabric interacts so flexibly with lighting, it opens up design element possibilities.

A common feature in Medtronic’s multiple exhibits is a conference room—some use hard materials; others use fabrics. Huff says using the hard-wall meeting room costs $18,900 with shipping, setup, material handling and other charges. The same setup in fabric is $12,900, a 30 percent savings per use.

Huff adds that upkeep on fabric is easier than with laminate panels, which are prone to nicks and scratches. The Medtronic booth is up to 25 percent fabric material, which Huff anticipates will increase.

“If we’re going to be paying based on weight and size, there isn’t anything smaller than fabric,” she says.

New and Improved

When Moss Inc. started using fabric in its own displays in the early 1980s, it was the same material it used to make its tents.

Leaders at the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based company realized that there was an interest in fabric displays from an aesthetic level, but the available fabrics had limitations. That began to change in the late 1990s when the technology to print on fabrics improved with the introduction of dye sublimation, says Jana McQuilkin, marketing manager for Moss. “It’s a good choice for printing a fabric that has stretch, and you need that for the complex, curved and organic shapes we create,” she says.

Printing quality continues to improve, too, says Kilmer, who thinks that flatbed UV printers will eventually become the standard.

Exhibits made of extruded aluminum framing with a channel in which fabrics are held taut are becoming more popular. “I think this is a trend that has been growing and has allowed more exhibitors to convert from hard panel to fabric because it brings down the cost,” McQuilkin says.

A greater diversity of fabric designs is now available that mimics the look of leather, metal or other textures; she anticipates that there will be more variety in styles, colors and textures.

The possibilities for fabric use have expanded too. “Fabric was often a part of an overhead hanging sign. That’s changed a lot in the last two years,” she says. “Fabric is coming down more to the floor; people are using it to build conference rooms and reception desks, maybe skinning a kiosk or a tower. We’re seeing a lot of different applications.”

To some, though, the concept of fabric still needs to pass the quality test. Kilmer says his concept for fabric panels on a display in Reagan National Airport, Washington, D.C., underwent a six-week test for potential snagging, which it passed. Kilmer sees growth potential for fabric use for displays in airports.

Fabric, however, won’t work in all exhibit situations. It’s not the best option for outdoor exhibits due to its light weight, and cleaning can be a challenge. “I’d like to see more washable fabrics that don’t shrink,” Keller says. And if one panel needs to be replaced in a section, all panels will likely need replacement to keep colors uniform.

“It can be a design challenge with a product that’s heavy or requires structure because fabric isn’t very structural. It’s visual,” Keller says.

Trade shows also have regulations that require fire-retardant materials and structurally sound units, although the regulations vary from city to city. Still, booth designers see this as a small issue compared to the greater benefits of fabric usage.

“I’ve been doing trade shows for more than 25 years. I have seen many things come and go,” Keller says. “I think fabric will stay in our industry as a material that’s used for trade show building. Ten years from now, you’ll see more fabric.”

Lynn Keillor is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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