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Help!
Portable/Modular Exhibits
ILLUSTRATION: MARK FISHER
Q.
We're about to purchase our first portable/modular exhibit. What questions should I ask potential exhibit providers to ensure we get a high-quality stand?

A.
Working for a provider of portable, modular, and custom exhibits, I've fielded countless new-build questions from exhibit managers over the years. Most people query us about price, delivery dates, and weights, and they want to know about assembly instructions and warranties. And of course, many spend innumerable hours reviewing the design and tweaking graphics. All of these basic questions should make your list of inquiries. However, there are several queries exhibitors should be asking that almost never make their short list – or their long list for that matter. So here are six questions I suggest exhibit managers always ask whenever they plan to purchase a portable/modular exhibit.
1. What will the framing material look like over time?
The material used to construct portable/modular exhibits varies by supplier, and the degree to which it degrades is also variable. While plastic components are more prone to chipping, splintering, and breaking, metals can show mars and dings and even take on a tarnished appearance. In fact, not all extrusions are created equally. Low-quality extrusions are frequently made with thin walls and sub-par finishes that can distort and tarnish after a few shows. So it's in your best interest to understand how your framing will weather time, handling, and variations in temperatures.

Ask the manufacturer about the specific name of the material used in your framing. Some Google research should clue you in to the quality of the product. And if someone tells you "an extrusion is an extrusion," walk away – or better yet, run.

2. On a scale of one to 10, what level of quality are the proposed fabric graphics?
When it comes to quality and expected wear life, a blouse from Dolce & Gabbana is a far cry from a similar garment from Forever 21. This same fast-fashion concept can be applied to fabric graphics. Some will wear beautifully over time and aren't distressed by continual handling, packing, transport, etc. Less-expensive – or what I'd call "disposable" – fabrics are most often thin, stretchy material finished with low-quality zippers or cheap hook-and-loop fasteners.

So just where do suppliers' proposed fabrics fall on the quality continuum? Inquire about how long the textiles last and when and how they'll begin to show wear. Also ask for fabric samples. You can feel the difference between cheap and quality fabrics just like you can discern the disparities between a Dolce jacket versus a Forever 21 version. So touch, feel, and trust your gut and your fingers.

3. How old is the fabric-printing technology you'll be using?
Dye-sublimated printing, which is the predominant type of printing for fabric graphics, is a high-tech process. And as with any technology, the latest and greatest is old news in about 12 to 18 months. So if your supplier is up to speed, it'll likely have the latest generation dye-sub printer. If the provider is a little behind the times, it may still have a "new-to-the-facility" printer in the shop. But this could be a castoff second- or third-tier printer that's been "gently used" by another firm that traded up.

Right about now, some of you may be rolling your eyes and questioning whether printer quality really matters. It does, especially with the preponderance of backlighting that reveals every flaw. If you've ever compared a high-definition dye-sub graphic and a four-color one, you know what I mean. With the HD version, skin tones are more realistic; black is black, not dark gray; and there's no color banding.

Granted, you don't need a top-of-the-line printer for every project, but you should always know the color quality you can expect – and whether the price you're paying is appropriate for the quality being delivered. So inquire as to when the printer was manufactured (not remanufactured or purchased). Then noodle around on Google to determine how this printer's quality compares to other equipment on the market.

4. Can we reuse packing materials?
Today's product packaging is meant for marketing, not repackaging and remarketing. Unfortunately, some exhibits are packaged the same way. They're packed and prepped to prevent damage before the first show, but it's on you to ensure there's no damage after the first event.

If you're fine continually buying Bubble Wrap and packing peanuts to protect your investment, that's fine. But if you want to reuse your packaging show after show, you need high-quality, reusable options, such as die-cut molded foam that's jigged specifically to nest each part, reusable corrugated boxes, woven bags, and plastic bins designed for logical packaging. Obviously, the high-quality stuff will cost more than peanuts, but a manufacturer who cares about the long-term survival of your display cares about your success as well.

5. Are replacement parts available?
Every few weeks, a random exhibitor sends me photos of a broken or missing exhibit part, hoping that I can identify the component and mail a replacement. Doing so is rarely an issue if the part is from a major manufacturer. But more often than not, the pics I get depict brittle pieces from inexpensive pop-up structures. And let's be honest: There are no parts. There never were any parts. And even if you did cobble together something to replace the widget, doing so would either be a temporary fix or it'd cost more than the whole booth put together.

Flimsy, inexpensive stands are like $17 toasters. They're not meant to be fixed; they're meant to be trashed whenever a component goes kaput. Thus, investigate whether quality replacement parts are available, how much they cost, and how easy it is to get them. And if the parts are only available through this guy who knows a guy, it's time to look elsewhere.

6. What about wire management?
Electrical and audiovisual cords have to go somewhere – or more specifically, they have to be hidden and routed somewhere. And unfortunately, there's no middle ground in this process. Wire management is either handled properly and looks good, or it's handled poorly and looks like Medusa on a bad hair day.

Sit down with your supplier and first identify what electrical devices will be in the booth and where they'll be located. Then ask your rep how the company plans to route and conceal each cord. If your rep fumbles the answer, run fast and run far. The wire-management solution he or she is pitching likely involves the twist ties that come with a box of garbage bags.

The aforementioned questions will not only help ensure you obtain an exhibit whose quality matches its price tag, but also help you separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to suppliers. Your queries will invariably make some folks uncomfortable and perhaps even reluctant to respond. But their willingness to answer should be in equal proportion to your willingness to offer them your business. You're spending a fair amount of money on a product that represents your brand. Spend it wisely with a company you trust.


— Mel White, vice president of marketing and business development, Classic Exhibits Inc., Portland, OR
Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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