Bolster Business with Exhibits and Displays

Diversification is one of the keys of successful investing, right? Well, that’s what I’m told by the investment community. I also happen to hold strongly to the notion that building impressions takes sign production and graphics printing to a higher realm. In order to build those impressions over time, I’ve had to embrace going outside of the box every now and then. I had to get uncomfortable, proactive, and start to diversify. That diversity came in the form of taking on new project types. When we got one, the creativity then flowed from the design process right on over into production and spilled onto everything in between.

In my world of sign making and printing graphics, somewhere along the way, I tested the waters of exhibit and display. I found it be a safe place to expand and grow some business, add more offerings for my clients and contribute to my bottom line. I also had to learn how to be successful and recognize my limits at first. There are things to know before jumping in the water.

You Can Do It

Any sign or print shop can produce a display or an exhibit. In fact, by default I would argue that all sign and print shops have at least one of each to some degree that they can show in a portfolio. With digital and large-format printing, I find display becoming more mainstream and apparent everywhere I go. And when I visit someplace that is not taking advantage of spatial or environmental opportunity to display or exhibit, I wonder why not. Those places are where we can lend our services and expand our shops. It’s where diversification can bolster business.

Within the realm of display and exhibit, we sign and print people can grow our client and product base to the degree or level of comfort we choose. The industry has evolved in our favor even to the point where you can exhibit or help a client participate in a national expo without having to spend the time and capital to become an all-out, in-house expert.

Years ago the exhibit industry was very different and very outside of traditional sign making. In fact, many considered exhibit production to be similar to producing furniture. The components were heavy, bulky, and if you wanted to exhibit it was likely you’d have to buy and own one. Not so today. Exhibits can be customized and rented. Or, if you produce one yourself, you can rely on venue based exhibit logistic firms to help with all the details of set up and tear down. Companies specializing in producing and distributing modular components have made buying the parts needed to pull off a display or exhibit job quick, painless, and easy—even for dummies like me.

Does this all mean there’s not as much value to the traditional exhibit house as there used to be? No. On the contrary, I have found greater value for them even as the trends make it easy to go around them. Partnering or outsourcing provides you the experience and expertise you might not have while you can focus on the client relationship and the development of the exhibit or display concept and content.


I believe that dipping into exhibit and display is worthwhile. But like any new venture, there are aspects to it that should be considered like knowing your capabilities. Once you fully recognize what you can do and can’t do, you can then decide where to invest, research, buy or subcontract. One staple item that is a must-have in order to be competitive today is the digital printer. If you’re not digitally producing printed output yet, you’re among the five or so percent that don’t. It’s time to ramp up if you plan to offer and produce displays and exhibits.

What else should be considered? I asked Tim Markley of Markley Enterprises in Elkhart, Ind.; Norman Davies of EFI, Inc. in Las Vegas; and Mike Levi of ION Exhibits out of Chicago. All three design and produce products in the exhibit and display industry.

For Tim Markley, most of his business comes from the construction industry where clients use his abilities for mostly P.O.P. and displays, but some in exhibiting as well.

“The difference between display and exhibit is determined by the differences in size or scale, number of units, and quality,” Markley says. “Displays for us usually involve more units, lower quality in terms of substrate or method of production, and tend to be smaller in size.” He also sees that fabrics with fabrication are the hot trend. The convergence of the two makes for a great opportunity for sign and print shops to enter into displays and exhibits.

Norman Davies of EFI (Exhibit Fair International) got into the exhibit business at an early age when he started as a teenager in the early ’70s. His first job was doing set-up and tear-down. In 1997 he became the VP of sales for the firm where he was employed and then purchased EFI. He says there are two types of firms today in the exhibit business: client-based and venue-based. Client based tends to be more regional focused where you assist those clients in your market with their exhibiting needs. For venue-based clients, as his firm is more aligned, the focus is on assisting those who want to exhibit in specific venues of a specific geographic region. EFI specializes in all aspects of exhibiting in Las Vegas.

An advantage in working with them is that you or anyone can end up with a top-notch custom-looking exhibit produced by them in-house but at the rented price. They take care of everything and incorporate modular components, the fabric and printing, and custom fabrication.

“It’s very expensive to exhibit on your own, especially if you’re located outside of the United States,” Davies says. “It just doesn’t make sense to build and transport an exhibit and then hire for set up and take down when you only have days to pull it all off. We do all that.”

I asked Davies for examples of where his company has provided displays or exhibits that were unique and perhaps ideas to consider for our readers. The first he mentioned was what he termed a “roll out” or announcement for a new gate and flight that they conducted at the Los Angeles International Airport and at Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport for a company outside of the country. The other project he described was for a gaming company that hired EFI to convert a trailer, turning it into a traveling display that they used for sales and demonstrations of their products.

From these examples it is evident that there are places, events and situations that present unique opportunities for exhibit and display outside of the usual or more standard uses and locations. Vehicles, announcements and grand openings can all be enhanced through creative visual applications with displays and exhibits.

Mike Levi of ION Exhibits bought the business where his wife worked as the company’s top sales producer. That was back in 1996. He too has seen the tremendous transformation in the industry as technology and methods of production have changed drastically. They serve any sized business but focus on clients close to the Chicago area that exhibit anyplace in the world. As the industry turned more modular and “sales oriented,” he’s seen an increase of designers taking a lead role in developing and managing displays and exhibits for clients. He’s led his company to being what he calls a hybrid—one that buys, builds, outsources, consults and brokers—whatever it takes to get a project launched and completed. The opportunity you and I have with a company like ION Exhibits is that we can lean on them for assistance and they welcome us. They partner with the designers and the shops that need their expertise in order to successfully handle an exhibit project.

Over the years, ION Exhibits has worked with companies of all sizes, including big names like AT&T. Their use of flexible substrates with print and light-weight fabrication result it a variety of modern-looking exhibits that are tailored for the client in order to build those lasting impressions. Examples of their work include an exhibit made for a company called SCIL and one for Trustwave.

Baby Steps

Are you beginning to see exhibits and displays as a means to growing your shop’s business? You don’t have to start off by trying to help your client exhibit in an expo in Switzerland. You can start small.

One display oriented project we recently completed was for a local college where we designed and provided the backdrop used for the athletes who sign on to attend the school or for their post-event interviews. You see these all the time on television behind the coach when being interviewed. From there, the foot is in the door and we can apply print and display anywhere and everywhere they want them. We can help suggest places for them as well.

Sometimes the lines are not clear on what is an exhibit versus a display. Think of exhibits in a more museological sort of way—more involved, elaborate, comprehensive. An exhibit is more open-ended and more focused on the content it contains for informing, educating and entertaining. It tells a story. A display is often a component of an exhibit but can stand alone in its function. Either way, keep in mind that somebody will engage with an exhibit or display. So be sure that it builds an impression.