Exhibit Structures, Then and Now

Trade Show Perspectives

The trade show exhibit world is an exciting, creative, fast-paced industry that offers you many opportunities. If you are detail-oriented, take deadlines seriously, strive for perfection, enjoy working with new technologies, then the exhibit and display world will provide you the opportunity to produce your best work… and get paid for it.

Exhibit Structures History

To get started in this industry, it may be best to understand the terminology and the type of exhibits that have been and are currently available in the marketplace.

In the ’70s Nomadic Display introduced a collapsible aluminum frame system named the Instand. Later it came to be recognized as the “pop-up” display.

Many years ago all exhibits were custom built using traditional 2" x 2" or 2" x 4" wood construction. Then in the ’70s, Nomadic Display introduced a space-age, collapsible aluminum frame system called the Instand. Later it came to be recognized as the “pop-up” display. About this same time, folding frame and folding panel systems were introduced. These systems folded similar to an accordion, which folded flat for shipping.

Velcro-Acceptable Fabric 

When both the pop-up and the folding frame systems were introduced, the panels were constructed of laminated paper, thin plastic, or Masonite. However, before long the panels were being covered with fabric that could accept Velcro hook-and-loop fasteners. Skyline Displays introduced magnetically attached Velcro-acceptable fabric covered panels for their pop-up display system. This idea drastically changed the portable exhibit industry and the graphics were simply attached to the fabric panels via Velcro hook. Velcro-acceptable fabric-covered folding panel systems all but replaced the folding metal and aluminum folding frame systems as well.

(Left) Laarhoven Design developed the LEGEND folding panel system. (Right) Exponents developed one of the first modular systems, showcasing fabric, laminate and acrylic panels.

Photo Labs Enter the Industry

It didn’t take too long before photo labs became involved and began producing large-format photos that had magnetic tape applied to the backside that magnetically attached to the pop-up systems or were simply sized to fit the folding frame and panel systems. Photo labs also expanded their opportunities by introducing Duratrans for backlit graphic options. A Duratrans is a film product that has a light diffuser on the back side.

MAXatrax backlit portable display systems, as well as manufacturers of light boxes began producing products to take advantage of this striking, back lighted graphic option.

This Nomadic Display features dye-sublimated fabric graphics and tension fabric structures.

Modular Systems

In the 1980s, aluminum extrusion became popular as a structural option. Exposed aluminum frame structures became the rage and a high percentage of new exhibits included exposed aluminum frames.

After a few years, people got tired of exposed aluminum frames and exhibit manufacturers began covering the aluminum with either Velcro-acceptable fabric or plastic laminates, such as Formica or Wilson-Art.

During this same time period, “modular systems” were developed. Exponents, Inc. and the CAT System by David Brace Displays were the first of the modular systems. These systems were basically building block systems that simply stacked panels together to create a structure. The beauty of the concept was that the configuration of the exhibit was easily changed as desired. Most all exhibit manufacturers introduced their own modular system shortly thereafter.

Integrated Systems (Hybrid Exhibits)

It seemed that few exhibit companies were mixing and matching different exhibit systems, so this was an area where I saw an opportunity and began designing exhibits using what I called Integrated Systems. Often, I would create an exhibit that utilized components from multiple manufacturers, and sometimes we would have to create custom hardware to fit the components together. 

This design concept helped separate our company from much of our competition. Today, most all exhibit companies create integrated exhibits, now recognized as hybrid exhibits. Also, many of today’s manufacturers produce a full line of different types of exhibit systems; in days past, most manufacturers specialized in a specific type of exhibit system. The nice thing now is that the manufacturers have already developed the hardware to connect the various systems.

(Left) Brumark, a supplier of flooring solutions, used tension fabric structures to attract people to their booth. (Right) MAXatrax created the HeaderMAX portable backlit system using a Duratrans for their large-format graphics.

Today’s Exhibit World

The exhibition industry today is taking advantage of dye-sublimated printed fabric graphics, aluminum extrusion structures, and tension fabric systems, all for the benefit of keeping the exhibits as lightweight as possible and with a goal of shipping as little freight as possible.

A significant feature of keeping the system “as lightweight as possible” means keeping structural material to a minimum, this helps keep the price down. I have seen exhibit designs created four years ago redesigned with the same basic shape only using less material, or a smaller-sized extrusion, thus lowering the price. But never forget, there is always a trade-off with strength and durability when using less or smaller extrusion.

In a future article, I will cover more regarding the issue of “shipping as little freight as possible.” There are regulations at most convention centers that dumbfound people new to the industry, but they need to be understood and accepted if you are going to be involved in the exhibition industry.

This 10’ x 20’ exhibit featured components integrated from seven different exhibit systems.

Important Considerations

If you choose to explore your opportunities in the exhibit world, one extremely important fact to consider is deadlines. When you get a deadline date, it must be met without fail.

A company that is exhibiting at a trade show has generally gone to a great deal of expense and a great deal of planning to generate the message they wish to present at a given trade show. Unfortunately, their planning (or lack of decision making) regarding this message often leaves little time to produce their graphics, which can be a headache for you. In those cases FedEx or UPS overnight shipping becomes your best friends.

There is no such thing as missing deadlines because if you miss the deadline, your customer misses the show, and your headaches have just begun.

However, the exhibit world does allow you to work your craft to perfection. Exhibitors expect and demand high-quality work. Although not every project requires uniqueness, occasionally you will have a customer that wants to present their message in professional, yet creative way that will set them apart from their competition. These projects are challenging and can be very enjoyable. The exhibit world is a very competitive environment, and everyone is looking for an advantage. Can you be that advantage?