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We've always exhibited using a tabletop exhibit, but we're finally going to invest in a portable/modular 10-by-10-foot booth. What questions should I ask portable/modular suppliers before I make my first purchase?

There are countless exhibit suppliers available, and endless variables in the type of exhibits, accessories, and price ranges they offer. For example, a 10-by-10 booth could comprise merely a pop-up back-wall display, or you could purchase a series of retractable banner stands, pair them with tensioned-fabric graphics and freestanding structures, and add accessories such as light fixtures, furniture, and literature stands.

Then you've got a number of other variables, such as weight, production time, durability, etc. to consider. And of course you need to know how or if your booth will be shipped, who will assemble it at the show, and how much everything will cost. So especially if this is your first foray into the world of portable/modular exhibits, the more questions you ask potential suppliers, the better your chances of securing the type of display you need. Here are nine critical questions to get you started on a path to a portable/modular purchase.

1. How much does the booth weigh, and is it easy to move? There are many reasons people opt for portable/modular exhibits rather than custom
booths, but among them, their logistical benefits often top the list. You can roll or carry many of these exhibits into the show venue and set them up yourself, thereby eliminating associated drayage and installation-and-dismantle costs.

However, the weight and size of some portables may necessitate shipping them to the show - which, of course, costs money - and incurring drayage costs to get them to your space. So more likely than not, you want a booth that's lightweight and easy to maneuver.

2. How will the exhibit be packed for shipment? Does it qualify as checked, oversized, or carry-on luggage? If you can easily transport your exhibit yourself by checking it as luggage on the plane to the show, you'll save oodles of shipping costs over its lifetime. Plus, if your exhibiting calendar is stuffed to the gills, bringing your exhibit along with you on the plane cuts several days of shipping time out of your schedule.

So determine the booth's possible shipping methods and limitations, and ask several additional questions about the shipping containers. Are they made of durable materials, or will they need frequent replacement? Do they have handles and wheels, making them easy to transport? Are they included in the purchase price? If your exhibit is expensive to ship and difficult to transport, you're missing many of the benefits typically offered by most portables.

3. What tools and labor are required for setup? While some portables are easy to set up with no tools or labor required, others may require the aid of union labor and special tools, which can cost you both time and money. Enquire about the maximum number of hours required to set up your booth, and whether setup will typically require union labor.

Many unions and convention centers have strict regulations about the amount of time and tools required for installation. So depending on their regulations and your requirements, you may be forced into using union labor whether you want to or not.

4. Is the exhibit reconfigurable, or can it only be used as a 10-by-10? Some exhibits pop open to a standard, unchangeable size, and others feature components that can be modified to accommodate various sizing needs. If your exhibit's size requirements vary, you will want a portable property with some built-in flexibility.

For example, while you might use the booth as a standalone back-wall structure for 90 percent of your shows, maybe you want to use the same structure or parts of it at a handful of tabletop shows. If your needs warrant, a reconfigurable exhibit may be a much better value than buying two separate structures.

5. How long will it take to produce, and how much will it cost? While these questions sound uber simplistic, you need to figure production timing and cost into your decision-making process. Both factors vary depending on the type of booth and graphics you choose, and the amount of customization required. Generally speaking, however, portable/modular production times are less than three to four weeks, and certain products can be shipped in as little as 48 hours.

Costs vary dramatically, but a pop-up 10-by-10 structure with graphics typically runs between $2,400 and $3,400, and you'll generally spend between $4,000 and $10,000 for a 10-by-10 modular exhibit.

6. What type of lighting is available for this exhibit? Lighting is an important aspect of any exhibit, no matter what the size, as it helps direct attendee's eyes out of the aisles and to your messages. So never depend solely on the lighting in the exhibit hall to showcase your display.

You can usually purchase fixtures from any supplier at any time, but it's best to buy them at the same time you purchase your booth. That way, your supplier can recommend the proper lights for your exhibit, based on its load-bearing capabilities, your lighting requirements and graphics, and the compatibility of your lighting hardware with your booth framework.

7. How long will the booth last, and how easy is it to refurbish? While most trade show and event items are built to last, some are created specifically for one-, two-, or three-time use. Plus, some items come with easily detachable graphics that can be reproduced and reattached when necessary; meanwhile, other graphics have to be returned to the exhibit supplier to be remade and reattached to the frame. So before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you understand the expected lifetime of your booth and what refurbishment options are available.

8. Do you provide graphic-design services? Graphic design is a very important, but sometimes overlooked, part of purchasing a booth. You only have a split second to capture attendees' attention at an event, so the design of your graphics - not to mention the entire structure - is paramount to your success.

If you have an in-house designer that can design your graphics, that's great. You can eliminate one line item from your budget. (Just be sure your designer understands what file format the exhibit supplier uses.) But if you need someone to design your graphics for you, make sure your supplier has an experienced, high-quality designer on staff - and better yet, ask to see some of his or her work to see if it matches your company's design aesthetic. Also enquire about the cost of graphic design, which is typically charged by the hour, and ask about the average amount of time required to finalize a design.

9. What type of graphics can you provide? There are many different substrates available for your graphics, including everything from vinyls and fabrics to Plexiglas, which vary in terms of price and durability. So carefully consult with your supplier to determine the best choice for your needs, and be sure to examine samples of several materials to see how they differ and how your message will be displayed.

- Phil Vicino, director of sales and marketing, Orbus Inc., Bolingbrook, IL

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