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Tradeshows: They’re Back, Baby

(March 2012) posted on Tue Mar 06, 2012

Insight gained from attending the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

click an image below to view slideshow

By Craig Miller

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, ( where he is also director of military law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.