Miller-Craig.jpg

Tradeshows: They’re Back, Baby

Insight gained from attending the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

I recently spent four days walking the 15 football fields or so that comprised the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, aka CES. Of course, I wasn’t alone. A record number of attendees –153,000 registrants – were poking around the 3100 company exhibits.

What did I learn? First, and most encouragingly, after years of cautionary tales, the tradeshow industry is back! I’m basing this not only on my CES floor-walking experience, but also on my own company’s tradeshow-related numbers: Our 2012 sales were up for CES and also for Surfaces (floor coverings), the Shot Show (shooting, hunting, outdoor), and World of Concrete. And our pre-orders are up significantly for the Magic (fashion) and Licensing events in Las Vegas as well as Intermat Expo (building construction) in Paris and the 2013 Bauma (construction) show in Munich. If that doesn’t convince, you consider these numbers from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR): Approximately 9000 business-to-business exhibitions take place each year in the US; those exhibitions, the group reports, result in 1.5 million exhibiting companies and about 60 million attendees.

Second, there is an unimaginable quantity of wide-format digital printing at these events and, so, a great opportunity for print providers. This year’s CES show was replete with tens of millions of dollars of digital graphics. Dozens of imposing tents, all with interior as well as exterior graphics, were set up in the main parking lot. Many of these tents had balloons tethered to them, all emblazoned with company logos. There was a continuous queue of 40-foot busses, all with fully wrapped sponsor graphics.

The Las Vegas Convention Center itself, clad in steel, allowed for tens of thousands of square feet of digitally printed magnet sheeting that created huge CES murals enveloping the front of the building. The windows, too, were covered in graphics; banners and freestanding advertisements occupied every empty patch of concrete and column. New Ford vehicles – each with their own mini-booth – were evenly spaced at the center’s multiple entry doors. All this printed beauty was on display before attendees ever set foot into the exhibit hall.

The hall interior was similarly graphics-intensive. Every tradeshow has informational and directional signage, and for shows like CES this represents hundreds of signs and aisle banners. Because of the newsworthiness of CES and all of the public interest in consumer electronics, there were mini television studios in every hall with their identity and sponsors plastered on temporary walls. People were walking the show with digitally produced sponsor shirts. And every one of the 3100 exhibit booths had at least one digitally printed graphic, while some booths were completely fabricated from graphically printed material.

The soft-signage connection
As graphics professionals, we have a big responsibility to the tradeshow industry. We provide exhibitors with one of the most important elements of their show presence. The purpose of a booth, after all, is to entice attendees to enter the exhibit so the exhibitor can then engage them. The exhibiting company’s brand and image are at stake as well. Our contribution as print and solutions providers is a big deal. The visual graphics we produce, fabricate, and sometimes install can make or break the success of a company’s entire tradeshow effort.

It’s a huge expense for companies to exhibit. There’s the space rental, the cost of the booth itself, shipping, and the costs of transporting staff as well as housing, feeding, and paying them during the event. And keep in mind that the largest shows, like CES, are truly international, drawing companies from afar. In this year’s CES official show directory, for example, I counted 14 pages of companies whose name began with Shenzhen (I bought an HD video camera the size of a tube of ChapStick from one of these). If a company is traveling all the way from the Guangdong Province of China, they had better do a good job of presenting themselves once they get here. If not, they’ll amount to no more than a flyspeck among the 197 other Shenzhens.

At Pictographics, if an exhibitor customer is leaning toward scrimping on graphics, we’ll ask: “Why would you go to the time, trouble, and expense of having a booth if you’re not willing to invest in the last step to bring positive attention to your company and your products?” This question usually results in the customer rethinking their errant strategy.

Our industry has developed many ways of presenting customer graphics, of course, from self-adhesive and banner vinyl to soft fabric signage, posters, banner stands, backlit prints and many others. Which worked the best at CES? I’d argue that the clear winner was dye-sublimated fabric.

Since the late 1990s, “soft signage” in general and dye sublimation specifically has increased incrementally every year. You can’t go to a major tradeshow today and not see dye-sub everywhere, and some of the results are very dramatic.

So here is my tried-and-true sales pitch on dye-sub, not just for CES but for tradeshows in general (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, it’s been a significant part of our shop’s product mix since 1997): Dye-sub fabric has always had advantages over other forms of printed roll media. Done right, dye-sub fabrics can have extraordinary image quality with bright, vivid, and rich colors. Unlike vinyls, the more you light fabric, the better it looks. Fabric is lightweight and the better fabrics are wrinkle resistant and if wrinkled, can be steamed or ironed flat again. Sheer fabrics like voile can be made variably translucent with front or back lighting. Some of the new triple-woven fabrics now have sufficient opacity to use without a blockout liner.
Too, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in demand for fabrics made from 100-percent post-consumer waste that are 100-percent recyclable. Given the fact that many dye-sub technologies use water-based inks, these are about the greenest products on the planet (other than the energy requirement in the heat press to make the sublimation happen).

And it’s important to note that those of us with an interest in printing fabric can thank the visionary individuals in our industry who pioneered fabric tensioning. Fabric tension displays account for much of today’s growth in soft signage. Large booths that used to contain tons of drayage-intensive “flat walls” are now constructed with aluminum poles and sublimated fabric that go up like an erector set.

The girl with the QR tattoo
If soft signage was the clear CES “winner,” what about printed banner vinyl and printed backlit media? With today’s extraordinary print technology, banner vinyl has certainly never looked better. But the tradeshow challenges that vinyl faces have nothing to do with image quality. One problem is that once banner vinyl is folded or creased, it has wrinkles that never go away. There is also a challenge in controlling glare, and then there’s the weight of the graphic panels. Vinyl’s cause hasn’t been helped by the fact that, for years, some print providers have practically given the stuff away; as a result, in the eyes of the discriminating corporate client, vinyl can sometimes be considered “cheap.” Vinyl’s legacy of being associated with VOC-laden solvents and landfills hasn’t earned it any gold stars either.

Up until the last couple of years, vinyl banner material had one clear advantage over fabric and soft signage: width. Vinyl could easily be printed five-meters or 15-feet wide without a seam. The biggest dye-sub printers and calendars, meanwhile, were 3.3 meters or 10-feet wide.

But that was then. Now, smart print providers are filling five-meter solvent machines with solvent dye-sub ink, and mating these with oversized roll-to-roll heat calendars. As a result, we’re now seeing big, gorgeous five-meter dye-sub walls and tapestries featured at every major tradeshow.

Digitally printed backlit signage will probably be with us for a long time. I just wouldn’t recommend anyone staking their company’s future on selling backlit prints to the tradeshow industry. Thanks to the printer manufacturers, we’ve never had better backlit printing capability. It doesn’t matter, though, because – as I was witness to at CES – LED and LCD electronic signs totally rule. Why would anyone pay for a new backlit box that’s capable of displaying a single static image and have to pay someone to physically change it, when you can instead have animation and countless stills, plus high-def video?

This is especially troublesome as flat screens get bigger, thinner, and cheaper. At CES, I saw video walls measuring 100-feet wide x 25-feet tall displaying 3D images so real you had to duck, 3D TVs that required no glasses, 4K video technology that displays four times the resolution of today’s best HDTVs, and flat screens so thin you could shave with them. So backlit prints are, I think, on the road to extinction.

Everything is changing. Our shop has maintained a small-format commercial digital print capability as a service for our tradeshow clients. There had always been those last-minute needs for handouts, press kits, and other small-format printing. For this year's CES, though, we didn’t get a single small-format sale. And as I walked the show floor, I got five press kits on thumb drives. I got product information by scanning a dozen quick response (QR) codes with my iPhone. My favorite was scanning the QR code that was presented to me as a realistic tattoo on the bare back of a beautiful woman with pink hair. I wonder how they printed that tattoo? You gotta’ love the tradeshow business. Bottom line: The days of an attendee lugging around 20 pounds of handouts and a print provider being paid to produce them is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as well.

The replacements
The good news: There is still a lot of money to be made selling into the tradeshow industry. And there are new products for us to produce and new opportunities in this industry every year. So although we might lose out on some products, we can replace them with others.
At our company, for instance, we’re excited about new printable booth flooring options and printing to metalized paper that clings to magnetic walls. There are promising UV coaters with new primers, overlaminates, and flood coats. UV printer advancements are making it possible to print dimensional images and even braille. Printed variable clearcoats and metallic inks are producing images that add some exceptional “wow” – let’s see them do that with a flat screen. I’m optimistic for our industry’s tradeshow future.
 

Craig Miller is a principal sharehilder in Law Vegas-based Pictographics, (www.pictographics.net) where he is also director of military law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.

View more from this Big Picture issue