Are you looking for an additional source of revenue? If your business fabricates metal and wood signs, then you may already have most of the required tools to be able to construct exhibits, too. Beware, though. If you choose to enter the exhibition industry, then know that deadlines are an absolute, not an option. Dates must be met; otherwise your customers will miss their trade show or event.
Unlike signs, exhibits are designed and constructed to be repeatedly assembled and disassembled. Once they are created, they are set up then dismantled after each event, put in crates or cases for shipping, then stored. When it’s time for the next trade show or event, they are then shipped, set-up, displayed, dismantled, and the process continues. Generally, exhibits are displayed in convention centers or hotels for an average of 3-4 days per show. Occasionally, an exhibit is set-up in one day and dismantled the next.
This example shows how a singular modular exhibit can be re-configured to suit different booth spaces. Often sign shops already have the tools and expertise needed to fabricate with aluminum extrusions, PVC and similar materials. (Image courtesy of Abex Exhibit Systems)
Portable exhibits are generally 10' by 10' or smaller. They are very light-weight and take less than 20 minutes to set-up, usually by only one person and with a minimal amount of tools, if any. In the last decade, retractable banner stands have become very popular due to their portability. Pop-up exhibits that have expandable frames are the other most-used portable system. Generally, you would not fabricate either of these types of displays; you could offer the graphic panels for both types if you have either digital printing or dye sublimation printing capabilities.
Modular exhibits are systems that can be reconfigured easily and can be fabricated from a wide range of materials. They offer the customer more flexibility than portable exhibits. For example, a 10' by 20' booth can be reconfigured to a 10' by 10' booth for a different show. Many of the materials you use for fabricating signs can be used to fabricate exhibits.
Pop-up exhibits are another popular option for small exhibit spaces, but the only fabrication required is printing the graphics. Often with small exhibit spaces (10’ x 10’ or smaller), pop-up banner stands can be used to create the booth, and sign shops can easily fabricate the graphics.
Aluminum extrusion, in particular, is a common construction material. You can use exposed aluminum extrusion, or you can cover it with materials such as flame-resistant fabric, plastic laminates, PVC sheeting, thin metals, expanded metals, vinyl films, etc. A current trend is wrapping the extrusion with dye sublimated fabric graphics.
However, a word of caution regarding modular exhibits. Unless you plan to create a specific modular system, set up for consistent manufacturing, then do extensive marketing, you may not be able to compete economically in the modular marketplace.
With elaborate custom exhibits, construction can sometimes seem like you are building a house. (Image courtesy of Condi Exhibits)
The primary difference between custom and modular exhibits is in the designing. A custom exhibit is a one-of-a-kind design; a modular exhibit is designed and constructed from pre-sized components and configured in specific layouts to meet a customer’s needs. Often, both types of exhibits are fabricated from the same basic materials and substrates. Custom exhibits are where your opportunities may best be suited for fabrication.
Custom exhibits can be of any size, from small structures to large structures. For your first few years in the exhibition industry, you may want to leave the very large custom exhibits (larger than 400 sq. ft.) to the more experienced builders as they can become very complex. You may want to start with 10' x 10' (100 sq. ft.) exhibits, then graduate to the 10' x 20' (200 sq. ft.) exhibits. A 20' x 20' (400 sq. ft.) exhibit is a very comfortable-sized exhibit to work with once you are an experienced exhibit builder.
A custom exhibit often is created from a design incorporating some portable components, some modular components, and some truly custom components and hardware to fit everything together. These exhibits are generally referred to as custom hybrid exhibits today.
This modular exhibit was fabricated with a definite green theme. Environmentally friendly exhibit materials are becoming increasingly popular. (Image courtesy of Go Green Displays)
Fabricate vs. Distribute
Years ago, I fabricated all of my exhibits. Then, as more portable and modular manufacturers entered the market, I found it easier to design a structure and have others fabricate the components. This is also an option for you. Currently, I design and assemble exhibits and depending upon the project and our workload, I may have others fabricate certain components or the entire exhibit.
One of your main challenges will be convincing the exhibit buyer that you have the ability to build exhibits. Perception is a difficult thing to overcome. Years ago, I had to change the name of my sign company from Woodard Signs & Displays to Image Industries, Inc. Unbelievably, in approximately six months after changing our name, we were able to overcome the perception that we were “a sign company” to the perception that we were “a company that was able to provide signs and exhibits.” After that, the exhibit orders started flowing in.