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Bright Ideas
When it comes to exhibit lighting, many marketers don't know what they don't know. But that's OK, as long as you've got a lighting pro in your pocket – and follow these eight tips.
By Travis Stanton
ighting is a powerful tool. It illuminates, attracts and directs attention, enhances ambiance, creates an endless variety of aesthetics, and has the power to, quite literally, make your products shine brighter than the competition's. But despite its myriad uses and benefits, most exhibit managers know as much about lighting as they do quantum mechanics. So to help them maneuver from dark and dank to light and luminous, EXHIBITOR enlisted six experts who shared their ideas on incorporating illumination easily and effectively without going over budget.

Consider lighting early in the process.
Reverse engineering lighting into an exhibit design is like adding recessed fixtures into an existing home. It's more costly and problematic than if those fixtures had been considered before the walls had Sheetrock on them. That's why Susan Wright of Light Craft Manufacturing Inc. says lighting needs to be a part of the design discussion from the very beginning. "Placing fixtures, running cords, and hiding power supplies is more difficult when exhibitors attempt to integrate lighting late in the process," Wright says. She also cautions that not thinking about lighting until after a design has been finalized can limit your options. "You might find there is no place to attach the appropriate lighting to the display, forcing you to select lighting options that may not be ideal. Or, because you'll be limited on where you can place fixtures, the exhibit structure itself might interfere with the light source, resulting in shadows."

Rob Cohen, vice president of Display Supply & Lighting Inc., agrees. "You really don't want the lights themselves to be noticed, just their effects. A light that delivers what is needed and is not even seen is the best solution. But when working with an existing structure, that level of seamless integration can be difficult."

That said, Wright and Cohen agree that adding illumination to an existing exhibit is far from impossible, especially for more diminutive in-line structures. "If you're designing a small, simple exhibit – or if you're using a portable structure – you can typically add lighting at later stages," Wright says. "But if illumination is important to you, the earlier you involve your lighting designer in the design process the more likely you'll get the effect you desire without hassles and headaches."

Keep your lighting designer in the know.
"When creating and updating a lighting design, I need to know what products, messages, and areas in the booth are critical to the exhibitor. So make sure your lighting designers have a good understanding of your marketing strategy," says Kenneth Farley, president and lead lighting designer at Illumination Production Services Inc. in West Haverstraw, NY. "That way, I can direct the lighting, and the attendees' attention, appropriately."

Farley illustrates his point with an example from an event where he was charged with illuminating several key graphics. "Based on the minimal information we'd received from our client during pre-production, we focused lighting on the large text and main images within the graphics," Farley says. "However, during a press conference I attended shortly before the event, my client revealed that the company's recently developed marketing strategy revolved around a new tagline – which was included in the graphics, but was by no means a main element. Needless to say, we rushed back to the setup area and added additional lights to make sure those little taglines took center stage. If we hadn't attended the press conference, we would have had no idea that this tagline was critical at this particular event."

Cohen adds that it's essential for the lighting designer to be aware of exhibitors' goals, because those goals will impact everything from the type and style of lights selected to the color temperature and lighting effects employed.

Allocate funds for illumination.
According to Jeff Rudner, president of ELG Productions (formerly Exhibit Lighting Group Inc.), exhibitors are often blindsided by ancillary, lighting-related costs. While they usually understand the initial expense of their lighting system, operational costs – such as show services – are often a surprise. It's not so much that these costs are overwhelming; it's just that unexpected expenses can wreak havoc with your budget. "Some exhibitors completely forget to figure in the costs to install, operate, and dismantle lighting systems, while others drastically underestimate them," Rudner says.

Farley adds that ambient-light control is another budget buster. "Whenever you want to control the ambient light in a convention center you're going to incur some extra costs," he says. "However, many exhibitors assume that eliminating some lights simply means flipping a few switches. But the fix is rarely this simple, and even if it is, the general services contractor or venue usually charge by the fixture. Sometimes, you may have to pay for the labor and equipment required to either physically access the ceiling fixtures to actually unscrew each bulb, or to attach shields around the fixtures to limit the light falling into your booth."

Also ensure that quotes from your lighting vendor include estimates for all related expenses, such as electrical, rigging, labor, drayage; use of additional equipment or machinery, such as condors and/or scissor lifts; and ancillary rigging requirements such as a spanner truss.

Include truss and rigging structures in your diagrams.
Many lighting systems include structural elements such as overhead truss and rigging. But exhibitors often forget to include these structures in the exhibit diagrams they submit to show management for approval. And that is a cardinal – and potentially catastrophic – sin. When lighting designers and labor crews go to install these items during setup without prior approval from show management, the work can be temporarily shut down pending show management's inspection and approval.

Along these same lines, if you have significant rigging that will be attached to the venue, such as a truss hung from a ceiling beam, make sure your lighting contractor provides weight loads in all rigging plots and that these loads are cleared with show management prior to the event. "Each venue has different weight restrictions for suspended rigging," says Rick O'Neill, president of Light Source Inc. in Milford, MI. "And failing to approve your weight load prior to setup can significantly delay – or abort – your installation. In fact, I've witnessed many exhibitors trying to install their rigging without pre-show approval, only to be forced to modify or entirely remove portions of the lighting system because it didn't comply with the venue's weight restrictions."

Note any abnormal venues and booth spaces.
"Every booth space is unique, and you don't want to wait until setup to discover a 30-foot catwalk running across the middle of your 50-by-50-foot booth," Farley says. "Unfortunately, you can't simply check the floor plan or even contact show management to be sure there isn't an obstruction in your space, as these kinds of venue abnormalities aren't often drawn into the floor plans. Your best bet is to have your lighting designer contact the venue's rigging supervisor and verify any obstructions."

Just as different booth spaces present unique obstacles that must be worked into your lighting design, different venues have drastically different ceiling issues. "There are variations in fireproofing, fixed points, load limitations, ease of access, rules and restrictions, etc." Farley says. "For example, I usually estimate that each ceiling-based rigging point we establish will take an hour to install. But in certain venues, such as the Anaheim Convention Center or the Georgia World Congress Center, I know that given the ceiling variables and restrictions, it's going to take twice as long for each point."

Different venues are also likely to have different types of equipment available for installation and dismantle. "Not all venues have scissor lifts and condor lifts available, and the equipment that is available varies depending not just on the show venue but also on the general contractor used," Farley says. "So prepare your lighting designer with all the information you have regarding venues and booth spaces. It will save you time, money, and hassles down the road."

Allocate space in your booth for lighting equipment.
"Most clients have no idea how much space lighting equipment requires, much less the amount of space needed for proper ventilation," O'Neill says. "And failing to incorporate these requirements into your overall floor plan, or even significantly paring them down to free up more space for other elements, can affect your lighting design, or even lead to a potential fire hazard."

"For almost all but the smallest of lighting systems, the exhibit not only needs to accommodate the light fixtures themselves, but also heat-generating dimming and control systems," O'Neill says. "Plus, depending on the size of the system, you may need to incorporate fans into the structure for ventilation, or provide ample room around these devices to allow heat to disperse in order to prevent a fire hazard."

Luckily for most exhibitors, properly allocating space for the lighting system and required electrical devices requires little more than a thoughtful consultation between your exhibit builder, your lighting designer, and perhaps the show's electrical provider. And Farley adds that thanks to advancements in lighting technology, today's exhibitors can make use of low-power LED lighting, which reduces the amount of power and dimmer space required to light a booth.

Plan installation accordingly.
"Generally speaking, overhead lighting systems should be installed before the rest of your exhibitry," O'Neill says. "That way, installation equipment can maneuver throughout your space and avoid damaging floor-based elements. So generating a well-planned installation schedule is critical to keeping I&D time and costs to the bare minimum. A poorly planned install will not only cause chaos on the floor, but also cost you extra money in labor and possibly extend your install into even pricier overtime hours." So prior to the show, work with your lighting-design team and exhibit house to develop an installation plan that will make the best use of the labor crew, their time, and your cash.

Even simple mistakes can create needless delays in your installation schedule. For example, according to Paul Fine, president and principal designer at lighting-design firm Fine Design Associates, members of the lighting team often aren't on the exhibitor's list of setup personnel. "If we're not listed, it can make obtaining setup credentials and show badges a difficult and time-consuming battle."

Farley also suggests that your lighting team prep as much of the lighting system as possible prior to the show. "It costs a lot less to pay your head electrician and a couple of guys at the shop to make cable bundles, label fixtures, and check all wiring and fixtures prior to the show than it does to pay onsite labor to complete these duties."

Avoid last-minute changes.
"Whenever you change anything about your exhibit design or marketing strategy, notify your lighting-design firm," Fine says. For example, if you move a central tower even a few feet to the left or right, it may block light fixtures on overhead truss, or necessitate design of an alternative truss layout. If you shift presentation equipment from one storage space into the same closet housing your lighting system, you could create ventilation issues, and ultimately shut down both your presentation and lighting equipment.

Rudner adds that even moving the positioning of a tablet PC vertically or horizontally a few inches can create glare, which can turn a beautifully lit booth into an eyesore. "If the exhibit or event planner makes last-minute, on-site changes to reflective surfaces – particularly LCD monitors, cellphone screens, table PCs, etc. – you could end up with eye-level glare and no time for the lighting designers to fix it," Rudner says. Furthermore, even minor changes in the position of your exhibit lighting typically require additional costs and labor, such as running new cables, adding or changing out fixtures, relocating truss, rerouting electrical connections, etc.

While each of these problems can bust your budget, they're all relatively easy to remedy. "Make sure your lighting designers are informed of any changes in layout or product positioning well in advance of the show," O'Neill says. "That way, designers have an opportunity to adapt these changes into the lighting design before the show, and hopefully to avoid any additional on-site labor fees to make changes on the fly."

Exhibit lighting isn't free, and it's not without its challenges. But follow these tips – and enlist a professional – and both your booth and your brand is more likely to be showcased in the best possible light.

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