Putting the Customer in the Custom Exhibit


As you begin the “time to get a new exhibit” process, you may be confused or even overwhelmed by the lexicon of exhibit producers. You may read about options in the industry press, only to be more baffled. In a marketing space that has received little serious attention, unfortunately, the descriptive language lacks precision.

The History of Custom Exhibits

So a bit of history: once upon a time, trade show exhibits in the U.S. were constructed from wood, from box-frame panels. They were carefully stored in wooden crates especially designed to hold the unique properties. The exhibits were heavy, fairly inflexible, and bulky. Between shows, they required storage in warehouses designed for this purpose.

As exhibitors became more sophisticated and embarked on global programs, the difference between what was produced in the US and what the rest of the world was using was noticeable. One difference was cost. The heavy crates cost a lot to ship and more to deliver to the exhibitor’s space on the show floor (drayage). When the show ended, and the crates went back to the warehouse, there were additional charges for shipping and storage. Never mind how the costs were applied, exhibiting was expensive.

By contrast, in other countries, storage space was less available, and the process of building exhibits was radically different—primarily reusable components were set up on the show floor, generally requiring more set-up time and negligible shipping costs (because the builder brought the components to the floor). But more importantly, the exhibits had an entirely different look and feel. The heaviness of the box frame panels was often replaced by the sleek, modern look of extruded aluminum systems.

The New Custom

Okay, end of (very over-simplified) lesson. Today exhibit builders are under pressure to help clients control costs, particularly non-customer facing costs like shipping, drayage, and storage. Also, as exhibitors contract for space of varying footprints, selecting components from crated exhibits is not particularly attractive—the expense of “pull and prep,” plus the aforementioned shipping and drayage charges make this option unsatisfactory. Solving the problem with a one-off rental exhibit can subvert the goal of maintaining brand integrity.

Custom as in Customer

The fact is today a custom exhibit is whatever helps achieve the goals and objectives of the exhibitor. If those goals and objectives include controlling costs and funneling resources to customer-facing initiatives, there are many ways to achieve them. Popular materials include extruded aluminum (or as one provider calls it, “aluminum lumber”) or fabric, but there are many more. Where once exhibit producers staffed their shops with skilled carpenters, today’s producers, in the words of Access VP Creative, Stephen Ross, are engineers, designing solutions and brand encounters. They are mindful of controlling costs not directly related to the customer experience. Designers and producers in the US today are more in tune with their global counterparts, creating custom exhibits that are “custom-built” or “customer-built” to deliver a particular experience.

All exhibits need to be modular

Exhibit managers will encounter confusion in terms, in particular, exhibits described as “modular.” “Modular,” for whatever reason, is used in reference to exhibits using aluminum system components. However, modularity is a feature that makes infinite sense, no matter what the construction materials. Modularity simply means designing a flexible exhibit that reconfigures to accommodate the space without sacrificing corporate or product identity. The idea that “custom” and “modular” are at odds is silly, yet that is how many, including the industry press, differentiate properties. The new building materials offer brand consistency, modularity, and adaptability to any footprint without sacrificing the brand experience.

The variety of building materials available to the contemporary exhibit builder means, among other things, that the exhibit industry is becoming greener, and fewer exhibits are winding up in landfill. Aluminum, for example, can be—and is—recycled. The environmental impact of shipping fabric rather than wood is considerable.

As the industry matures and college programs are dedicated to exhibit design, isn’t it time we “use our words” and talk about exhibits with more precision and in a more meaningful way?

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