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fixing snafus
illustration: Regan Dunnick
Making It Work
Amy and I soon realized we had been given one of those patented twists that "Project Runway" famously foists upon its harried contestants. Just when they think they are finished, there is one more hurdle to clear.
Plan A
Like a lot of creative people, I'm a big fan of the reality TV show "Project Runway." On each episode, fashion designers are given a challenge, and they then head off to a fabric store to gather their raw materials and rush back to the design studio to make an outfit. Like those budding clothing makers, I found myself in my own design challenge when I took my exhibit to the International Pharmaceutical Expo (Interphex) at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.

The difficulties with the booth for this expo actually began long before the show. At the close of Interphex the previous year, my company, Parsons, an industrial construction firm, had earned enough priority points to land a front-of-the-hall, 20-by-30-foot space for the next year's show. That 2009 booth space represented the largest presence and best location at Interphex in the company's history. But this premier booth assignment came with a problem: The floor plans showed it had a 5-by-5-foot column in the middle that included some kind of fire-safety station on one side.

Amy Armstrong, our event manager, and I began working on ideas for our new, bigger booth – and the unexpected column – and in the spirit of "Runway" guru Tim Gunn, we brainstormed ideas to "make it work." Eventually, with the help of our exhibit house, we decided on an open booth with flatscreen monitors and information stations where we'd talk with attendees. We included a large walk-in storage closet that used two sides of the intrusive column as part of its walls. So when Amy and I arrived Thursday night for the expo's opening on Tuesday, we were figuratively ready to strut our stuff. But when we walked into the exhibit hall Friday morning to examine our booth space, we realized that major alterations were still needed.

Apparently the column wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Instead of being a solid, 5-by-5-foot support structure, it was merely four poles arranged to create a 5-by-5-foot empty square. Since the booth design included use of a solid column to make the walls for our storage area, these poles meant not only that the storage room would be missing walls, but also that attendees would have a wide-open view of the unsightly stuff in the closet. Worst of all, an ugly pair of big blue barrels used to catch condensation from tubes that ran down from the ceiling was positioned within these four poles.

We had also expected the fire-safety station to be something built into one side of the solid column we had envisioned. Rather, the "station" was basically a fifth pole with an attached fire extinguisher, fire hose, and water valve, which was positioned in the center of the other four poles. We also soon discovered the fire code allowed only three sides of the "column" to be covered. Thus we couldn't limit access to the central pole, yet we had to somehow create a wall of sorts to conceal our storage area.

Plan B
After gritting our teeth at this unexpected hassle, Amy and I got to work. Building a pair of walls for our storage area was only part of the job. We also needed to hide those hideous barrels without breaking the fire code.

Our initial thought was to hire someone from show services to drape curtains from pole to pole. However, show services wanted roughly $1,800 to rent and install the drapery. That amount was a lot more than I wanted to spend on this problem.

As we looked over the column, we soon realized we had been given one of those patented twists that "Project Runway" famously foisted upon its harried contestants. Just when they think they are finished, there is one more hurdle to clear. So we stuck to our idea of draping fabric ourselves to serve as a visual barrier.

Even though the show did not open for four more days, getting the column covered became the top priority. After all, we had a full plate of "normal" trade show tasks as it was. Besides, the storage area would be erected fairly quickly during the setup schedule, and we needed our solution in place before that happened. Otherwise, we might find ourselves deconstructing that part of the exhibit in order to put our fix in place, a backstep we wanted to avoid at all costs.

Realizing we were in the same kind of emergency as those struggling reality-show designers, Amy and I decided to tackle the problem like they would on "Project Runway." With Tim Gunn's trademark "Let's go, designers!" ringing in our ears, we headed to Mood Fabrics, the textile shop where "Project Runway" contestants get their raw materials – and the only fabric store we out-of-towners knew by name. We sifted through bolts of black fabric until we found the perfect inexpensive roll of polyester. Figuring we needed about 18 yards of fabric, we had a sales assistant cut us $40 worth of material, paid for it, and then bid the store a pleasant, "Thank you, Mood," like they do on the TV show.

Back at the venue, we started creating walls for the column using double-sided carpet tape to hold the fabric directly to the poles. By diligently keeping the fire cabinet unobstructed, we were able to weave the fabric in a way that did not break the fire code while also building our storage-room walls and hiding those unsightly blue barrels.

When the show began on Tuesday, our booth was a gigantic hit with attendees and even a few competitors who loved the look of our exhibit in spite of the obvious design challenge we'd faced. Even though Amy and I felt rushed and wished we'd had more time, we believed we had won the challenge. Best of all, no supermodels kissed our cheeks and bid us, "Auf Wiedersehen!"

— Bo Haynes, manager of visual communications department, Parsons, Charlotte, NC

Send your Plan B exhibiting experiences to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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