industry history



The ancestors of today’s exhibits traveled town to town, setting up their carts and tables near churches, braving the elements and wars to show their wares.


Thanks to the Crystal Palace of 1851, exhibitors today exhibit indoors in great architectural structures that are warm and waterproof, selling with a mix of education, technology, and carnival hype.

For centuries, trade shows were as boring as the livestock, cloth, or herring they displayed. People convened near churches to swap or sell goods displayed on foul-smelling donkey carts. Pressured by industrialization and rising consumer markets, the doddering system passed into history in 1851 at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London. The Exhibition’s crown jewel was the Crystal Palace, the McCormick Place of its day. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton in just 10 days, and built in only nine months, the 746,592-square-foot glass-and-iron exhibit hall was so huge that management was forced to bring in hawks to control the rogue sparrow population, which flew in the Palace’s many entrances to scavenge the litter of free food left by its six million visitors.

Merging the British tradition of retail shops and educational exhibitions with the long-standing European tradition of trade fairs and markets, London’s Great Exhibition forged the template for today’s trade shows with:

 New product launches, including false teeth, flush toilets, and Colt revolvers.

 Live product demos. English physicist Frederick Bakewell demonstrated an early version of what became the fax machine.

 Oversized props and bizarre attractions, including a 4-ton crystal fountain that squirted water 250 feet in the air, and the first life-sized reproductions of dinosaurs.

 Celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake appearances, from Queen Victoria to Czar Alexander II of Russia.

 Profit for the show sponsor — $17.5 million in today’s currency.

From the debut of the Erector Set at the 1913 International Toy Fair to “Blade Runner” booths at Comic-Con International, trade shows have followed the Great Exhibition’s blueprint of Barnumesque overkill and Woodstock-like crowding.



Nobody measured ROI or traffic because no news was good news.


Now you can prove if your exhibit flourished or flopped — and why.

Up until the mid-1960s, no one knew much about trade shows’ numbers for ROI, traffic density, exhibit efficiency, cost-per-visitor reached, or net buying influences. “There was almost no research or measurement at that time,” says Dick Swandby, who founded Exhibit Surveys Inc. in 1963 and introduced performance-measurement metrics to the trade show industry. “People didn’t want to know in case what they found out was bad.”

Employed by International Nickel Inc. in New Jersey, Swandby began researching on the side. In 1963, he approached Republic Steel Corp. to gauge the Cleveland-based steelmaker’s exhibit at the American Society for Metals and Materials Show. When show management objected to Swandby measuring variables that had formerly been veiled in mystery, his company pink-slipped him.

The pink slip turned into a red flag for exhibitors previously content to judge their exhibits’ effectiveness with anecdotes instead of information. Other research groups including the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), founded in 1978 as the Trade Show Bureau, emerged to help fill in the information vacuum.

Today, industry benchmarks exist for space rates, labor costs, and furniture and accessory costs, while common survey questions plumb for memorability and brand awareness.

Exhibitors now see data measurement as inseparable from the bottom line. Nearly five decades after Exhibit Surveys’ debut, 100 of the Fortune 500 companies have used its services.

Once considered a frill, trade show performance measurement is now a marketing necessity.



Until a disaster transformed the country’s safety codes, fire codes for exhibits were loose and less strictly enforced.


Rigorous new rules for sprinklers, wiring, wood, fabric, and double-deck exhibits take exhibiting out of the line of fire.

Forty years ago, exhibit builders had few fire codes to worry about. That way of exhibiting went down in flames on Jan. 16, 1967, hours before the National Housewares Manufacturers Association Semi-Annual Exhibit was scheduled to open in Chicago’s McCormick Place. A lone janitor noticed a spear of black smoke shooting up from a booth. Faster than you could say “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow,” the convention center burned to the ground.

When the new Mc-Cormick Place opened in January 1971, Chicago’s new codes set the standard for other exhibit halls across the country. Electrical codes now required mandatory grounding, three-wire systems, and fusing of low-voltage items; soon individual materials had to be sprayed with fire retardant. At first, fabric ceilings had to be breakaway, so they wouldn’t bottle up water from the sprinklers; now they have to be porous enough for the water to sink through. Double-deck exhibits less than 500 square feet require sprinklers; those larger than 500 square feet must have sprinklers, two entrances, and two exits.

The number of fires in non-residential structures has dropped by more than 70 percent since 1967. Now if someone says your exhibit’s smokin’, they mean it in a good way.



Reattaching your graphics to your exhibit used to take nails and screws — and blood.


Your job would be a lot harder if a Swiss engineer hadn’t loved his dog.

Whenever Georges de Mestral walked his dog, he noticed how tenaciously burrs clung to his canine companion’s fur. What followed was one of those classic light-bulb-over-the-head moments. De Mestral named his invention Velcro, also called hook-and-loop fastener or touch fastener.

A few years after its 1948 invention and early-1950s patent, Velcro’s use spread to the show floor. Gone were pricked fingers and ripped graphics. “You could use Velcro any time you needed a temporary bond,” says Chris Wendel, principal of ChrisWendel Inc. in Westfield, NJ. “It was easy to use, and didn’t require any special labor or expertise.”

Velcro did more than act as makeshift mortar. It saved exhibitors costs, labor, and materials. It eliminated traditional fastening systems such as nails and screws, allowed for the hidden fastening of overlays, and made it easy to reposition graphics. Panels, for example, were expensive if exhibitors had to reposition them using traditional materials that called for extra labor.

Velcro — later joined by tension fabrics and portable exhibits — made booths less stuck in the limitations of the past.



Show management gave you your choice of the show-appointed contractor or … the show-appointed contractor.


When the growth of the exhibiting industry let exhibitors by-pass show management, they celebrated independents day.

When you think of monopolies, you probably think of AT&T Corp. or the Organization of Petroleum ExportingCountries. But before the late 1960s, show-appointed contractors (SACs) had a special monopoly all their own.

Like most monopolies, this arrangement solved a problem — for a while. When shows began to spread across the country, local contractors met this expanding market with a host of exhibition services, such as drayage and installation and dismantle. Show management and unions contracted with SACs and offered their services to exhibitors on a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. “Everyone needed them,” says Don Freeman, the CEO of The Freeman Cos. in Dallas.

SACs ruled like fiefdoms, but cracks started to appear in 1969 when Carl “CB” Birsa opened CB Display Service Inc. in 1976 in Chicago and later in Las Vegas, becoming the city’s first licensed independent service contractor (known today as exhibitor-appointed contractors). By 2007, it was one of an estimated 120 such companies in the city.

Despite weathering antitrust suits, the SACs shriveled in their importance for the same reason they once had surged: As the number of shows multiplied — including shows like the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Comdex — the SACs’ power waned because they could not supply the increased demand for services. In the end, the market forces beat out the monopoly.



When it came to small exhibits, you had two choices: custom-made and expensive, or crude but cheap.


Exhibits are smaller, lighter, and cheaper, while small custom builds are gone with the wind.

In 1975, Ted Zeigler patented the world’s first portable pop-up display system. He called the collapsible structure Instand, and founded Nomadic Structures Inc. (now called Nomadic Display USA Inc.). It wasn’t exactly a hit. “The only people who got it were the French,” Zeigler says.

But it did solve a big problem. Before Zeigler, small exhibits were either expensive and custom-made, or no-frills pipe and drape. Fascinated by the geodesic domes patented by inventor/poet R. Buckminster Fuller, Zeigler tinkered with geodesic forms he built from wooden dowels, toothpicks, and frozen peas. One day in 1973, Zeigler carried a model into Fuller’s office. When Zeigler opened the bamboo-and-tape structure, Fuller, the man who some believed revealed the basic geometric arrangement that holds the universe together, said softly, “Oh, yeah.”

When Zeigler sold his first Instand in 1976 for $1,000, it set off an industry-wide tremor: Small custom exhibits disappeared.

Portable displays helped exhibitors duck drayage and carpentry costs that have escalated more than 247 and 143 percent, respectively, since 1982. A drove of portable-display companies popped up on the scene, shrinking the typical share of the exhibiting dollar spent on design by one-third since 1996, while shipping costs slipped by a fourth in the same span.



A long time ago in galaxy far, far away, exhibit space cost less than $8 per square foot.


Comdex ignored industry pricing conventions and permanently inflated trade show costs per square foot on the basis of supply and demand.

In the late l970s, exhibit space cost less than $8 per square foot, and price increases were typically limited to increments of 25 or 50 cents per square foot.

Then in March of 1979, Sheldon Adelson had a bright idea. “People are gonna have to have PCs in their homes,” the future billionaire said. “Let’s put on a trade show.” That December, he held the first Computer Dealers Exposition, aka Comdex, in Las Vegas. Nearly 170 companies forked over $11 per square foot. It was the beginning of the fastest exhibit-space price escalation the industry has ever seen.

Comdex could have taught the U.S. Mint how to make money. To maximize the number of exhibitors at its first show, Comdex allowed no booths larger than 20-by-20-feet. It arranged for fleets of taxis to advertise for exhibitors at a 200-percent markup. It hung 90-by-50-foot banners for which it charged $100,000. It also charged attendees $100 to get in the door — which might have been the Microsoft Corp.-sponsored door.

Every year, Comdex jacked up the price per square foot by $1 to $2. “People paid, paid, paid,” says Richard Katzeff, a senior vice president for Comdex, “because they were afraid not to come.”

Eventually, shows from MacWorld to CES tried to copy Comdex’s moneymaking and promotional acumen. According to Bill Sell, a Comdex vice president and general manager, “We taught the exhibiting industry how to find revenue outside the 10-by-10-foot exhibiting box.”



Exhibit architecture was as inventive and daring as the Brady Bunch’s split-level suburban house.


Exhibit architecture thinks outside the box — and in the triangle, the dome, the sphere, the spiral …

Exhibits used to be as square, hard, boxy, and dull as fallout shelters. Bill Moss of Moss Tent Works Inc., however, saw the future, and it was made of fabric.

In 1983, the Belfast, ME,-based camping-tent designer and manufacturer needed an exhibit for a recreation and outdoor sports show, but it wanted something that would stand out against a blandsville of booths.

Company founder Bill Moss idolized architect Frank Gehry, who was producing buildings that looked like unraveled bolts of cloth. “We took a gigantic tent pattern,” recalls Mary Carey, then an industrial designer with Moss, “and made an all-fabric exhibit from it that was more interesting than the tents themselves.”

Carey became what others called “The John the Baptist of tension fabric.” “We went on the road to convince companies to use tension fabric for exhibiting,” says Carey, now a vice president of marketing and sales for Transformit Inc. of Gorham, ME. “But everywhere we went we heard, ‘It’ll never work.’”

Carey and Moss evangelized those at the bottom of the corporate totem pole. “We approached designers, thinking they would get it,” Carey says. They did. CAD-type software allowed the designers to show in their drawings the billowing curves fabric would make, and with advances in digital-printing techniques, they began weaving fabric into their work.

Today, somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of custom exhibits use tension fabric. Its virtues — less weight and more portability — mean savings in shipping, drayage, setup, and storage. Thanks to tension fabric, today’s exhibitors like it when their booths get bent out of shape.



For showstopping graphics, you needed lots of craftsmen, lots of time, and lots of money.


Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Now you don’t need artists to make art — and make it fast.

Before vinyl came on the scene in the 1980s, graphics were hand painted, photographed, or silk screened. Hand-painted graphics were inconsistent. Photographs were expensive. Silk screening had more stages than Broadway: “After a silk screen was made up,” says designer Mark Bendickson, principal of exhibitdesign in Maple Grove, MN, “you still had to mix the ink and color match it and then pull the screens. And if it smeared, you had to start over.”

Vinyl was fast and cheap. You could cut copy in a consistent manner and apply it the same day, with little or no setup. Bendickson recalls using a Gerber Scientific Products machine. “It worked about the same way one of those DYMO label makers did,” Bendickson says.

What vinyl really did was subvert a whole industry. It wrested control of graphics from expensive outside vendors, since it could now be done in-house. “What took four or five days with photography or silk screening could be reduced to one day with vinyl,” says Scott Stubbs, president and CEO of H.B. Stubbs Co. in Warren, MI.

Vinyl seems as outdated as a transistor radio now. By the 1990s, digital graphics did to vinyl what vinyl did to silk screening. Museums, notes Stubbs, are one of the few places that still prefer to use vinyl graphics. That says it all.



Exhibiting was a 9 to 5 business, where you couldn’t easily be reached once you left the office.


Thanks to the Internet, there’s no downtime, no delays, and no rest, and that producer in Peoria is as good as next door.

Exhibiting, like politics, used to be local. Then the Web launched in 1991, and suddenly “Location went away.” With three words, Tom Yurkin, vice president of creative for the Dallas-based Freeman Cos., condenses the tectonic changes the Internet brought to the industry.

“There’s no downtime anymore,” Stubbs says. “Just as the Net has shortened our clients’ business cycles, it’s also shortened our design cycles with them.”

While cycles may have shortened, the trade show itself has expanded, with virtual trade shows gaining currency among exhibitors who want to stretch out the standard four- or five-day show to an always-open one that runs indefinitely.

One of the Net’s greatest effects is on art. Digital files that can be e-mailed to customers or uploaded to an FTP server for easy download and review reduced this previously drawn-out aspect of exhibit building from days to minutes.

Trade shows are investing more resources on pre- and post-show e-mails and surveys, and online promotions. Beyond these nuts and bolts, what the Net is really doing is turning all exhibit companies into Internet companies that can compete as equals. “The world is now flat,” Stubbs says. “The Net has put us all on a level playing field.” e

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