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hese days, it seems "do more with less" has become the exhibit marketer's mantra. Given the economic upheaval of the last two years, most exhibit-marketing budgets have shrunk more than a wool sweater dried on the heavy-duty cycle. What's more, mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies pepper almost every market imaginable, challenging exhibit managers to keep pace with the ever-changing face of their companies, its products and services, and the competition, all despite their dwindling marketing dollars.

While trimming the fat from a pudgy program is fairly easy, cutting back on an already lean program is tough work. And that job becomes even harder if the heart and soul of your exhibit-marketing program, i.e., your booth, needs a major overhaul. In today's economy, where every penny is scrutinized more than a "Project Runway" design, buying a new booth may not even be an option for many exhibit marketers - at least not in the near future.

But what if your exhibit is on its last legs, and your program is down to its last dime? Or what if you're suddenly asked to change messaging or implement a new product focus? If your booth isn't meeting your marketing objectives, it's likely detracting from them, and as an exhibit manager, it's your job to find some way to make it work. After all, you can't present a fresh face for your company when your booth and its messaging have been slapped around by the harsh hands of time.

Your answer lies in two words: exhibit refurbishment. Rather than trashing what you've got and buying something new, there are numerous
exhibit-refurbishment options, including everything from refinishing worn booth elements to reconfiguring your components, that can help you make the most of your marketing budget and lengthen your exhibit's lifespan. And refurbishment is typically a Greener - not to mention far less expensive - option than discarding your existing booth and starting from scratch. Neither management nor Mother Nature can argue with that.

"Whether you're talking bathrooms or cars, human faces or exhibits, a little freshening up may be all that's necessary to make what's old look new again," says Tony Castrigno, CEO of Design Contact, a New York-based design firm specializing in exhibits and events. "Rather than adding your exhibit to a landfill or shelling out cash you probably don't have right now, updating your finishes and colors and adding a new element or two can help you make the most of what you've already got."

But aside from merely updating graphics and resurfacing worn trim, how do you actually spruce up a tired booth? What elements are ideal targets
for touchups, and what pieces might you add to update the look and feel of your exhibit space?

EXHIBITOR asked eight industry pros these very questions. Weighing in with been-there, survived-that advice, our expert sources provided the following suggestions to help breathe new life into an ailing exhibit. Their innovative ideas prove that even when times are tight, a little fix here and a bit of renovation there is all you need to put a fresh face on your company's booth space.

1. Re-anodize and Powder Coat

"Whenever your aluminum components start to show their age, consider re-anodizing or powder coating them rather than replacing them entirely," says Kevin Carty, vice president of sales at Portland, OR-based Classic Exhibits Inc. "You don't have to make do with rub marks, scratches, dings, etc. For a fraction of the cost of replacing aluminum materials, you can have them refinished instead."

For example, Classic re-anodized the aluminum extrusions on a 10-by-20-foot booth owned by First Insight Corp., a provider of technology-based solutions for the ophthalmic industry. Purchased seven years ago, the exhibit travels to roughly 20 shows a year, and while the fabric graphics
and laminated components have held up well, the aluminum was looking dinged, dirty, and dingy when First Insight brought it in for refurbishment in late 2009.

"To replace the aluminum structures in the back wall, counters, and workstations would have cost First Insight roughly $20,000," Carty says. "But we re-anodized the whole thing for $750, turning a geriatric structure into something that looked spring-chicken new. We also changed out a few fabric graphics and added a couple of new workstations, and now First Insight plans to keep the exhibit for five more years."

Brad Hogan, president of Hillsboro, OR-based Pinnacle Exhibits, used a similar strategy for Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc. But instead of re-anodizing the aluminum, Pinnacle chose to powder coat it instead. Likewise, in 2005, Sony created more than 200 aluminum gaming kiosks for its PlayStation booth, Hogan says. Originally, they were powder coated using a grey hue, which fit the company's color scheme at the time. But for the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo, Sony wanted to update the kiosks' colors to match the company's latest branding. It hoped to create black kiosks for the PlayStation 3 products and white ones for its PlayStation Portable products. So Pinnacle re-powder coated the existing structures in the new hues, a strategy that was roughly 75-percent cheaper than rebuilding the more than 200 kiosks it needed.

While re-anodizing and powder coating are two distinctly different processes, they're both highly cost-effective methods to bring practically any aluminum or metal surface back from the brink of death.

2. Update Your Exhibit Colors

If you work for a company that is on the cutting edge, but your booth's aesthetic screams "dial-up connection," one of the best ways to freshen it up is to update the exhibit's color scheme. Consider integrating some contemporary colors - perhaps new fabric graphics, exhibit panels, booth furniture, or even inventive flooring - that compliment your existing corporate color palette.

"Updating your color scheme can bring an '80s-esque exhibit up to speed," says Dave Walens, president of Brumark Total Flooring Solutions, a Marietta, GA-based flooring provider. "An effective place to start is with your exhibit flooring," Walens says. "Sure, your flooring is actually under attendees' feet rather than directly at eye level. But flooring is likely the largest expanse of color in your entire exhibit space, and switching to a more contemporary color positively - and dramatically - affects your exhibit's overall design aesthetic."

While you can purchase a whole new flooring system - an option that's still much cheaper than buying a new booth - there are even less-expensive alternatives. "If you don't want to get rid of your old carpet, for example, consider cutting away the outer edges of it and inserting a new border in a complimentary color," Walens says. "You might also want to inlay your existing carpet with a colorful pattern or logo, simply to change things up and create a central focal point. Dying new carpet to a custom PMS color is another cost-effective option to consider."

Along these same lines, Carty's powder-coating trick can be used to change the color of your metal elements, as it did for the Sony exhibit. "If you're tired of the standard silver color found on many aluminum exhibit elements, you can have your metal pieces powder coated in a different color," he says. "We can usually powder coat a typical 10-by-20-foot booth for less than $1,000."

Just as in any residential living room, incorporating a splash of color on a single wall or adding a few dramatic-colored accent pieces throughout can jazz up your exhibit space and leave visitors wondering, "Did they get a new booth?"

3. Cover Unsightly Surfaces

While re-laminating exhibit surfaces is certainly a refurbishment option, it has the potential to be a tedious and rather expensive process. "If you have laminate-covered elements, stripping the laminate and sanding and then re-laminating the existing surface often costs an arm and a leg in both labor and material charges," says Mark Bendickson, principal and designer at Exhibitdesign, a Maple Grove, MN, exhibit-design firm.

However, rather than replacing laminate - or other booth materials that are labor- and cost-intensive to remove and replace - you can often conceal it with other materials. One option is to cover it with magnetic graphics. "The panel system in our exhibits is steel backed," says Gwen Parsons, senior vice president of Springfield, VA-based Nomadic Display. "That means that rather than removing chipped, damaged, or outdated laminate, we can simply apply magnetically mounted graphics over the top of them."

You can also use hook-and-loop fasteners or adhesive-backed graphics to cover unsightly surfaces, Bendickson suggests; however, these options probably aren't as versatile or easy to apply as magnetic-backed graphics. Also keep in mind that "graphics" can be anything from bold, full-color images and oversized text to panels bearing nothing but a single unobtrusive hue.

Another option for covering unsightly materials is to encase the entire element in stretch fabric. "We repurposed our 2008 booth for 2009 by simply covering the signs mounted to our kiosks with fabric 'pillow cases,'" Parsons says. "Rather than replacing the signs in the exhibit, we placed giant stretch-fabric 'slipcovers' over them to hide the outdated images and messages." While Nomadic opted to print new images and text on the "slipcovers," single-color fabric can be used to cover outdated elements that serve a strictly structural purpose - as opposed to those used for messaging - such as freestanding backdrops or privacy screens.

4. Concentrate on Key Areas

If your booth needs a Hummer-size overhaul but your budget looks more like a Mini Cooper, then focus your refurbishment efforts on the areas of your exhibit that receive the most traffic (reception desks, product displays, presentation theaters, etc.) or those frequented by VIP attendees (meeting and conference rooms, hospitality bars, etc.).

Alpine Electronics of America Inc. applies this strategy to its exhibit for the International Consumer Electronics Show, Hogan says. "To give the space a fresh look, highlight Alpine's current marketing objectives, and yet stay within its budget, the company uses the same basic structural elements year after year. However, we annually update key exhibit areas that receive the most traffic, such as the reception desk, demonstration areas, product displays, and conference rooms. Sometimes that means building new exhibit elements, and at other times we merely resurface these elements or change out graphics. But for us, a series of small, relatively inexpensive changes does the work of a complete exhibit makeover."

Acumed LLC also focuses its exhibit-refurbishment efforts on a key area: its product displays. According to Hogan, the medical company rarely
changes its basic exhibit structure, which features clean, simple lines and a neutral color palette. But the company continually releases new products, so it regularly updates and refurbishes its product displays - by repositioning the displays within the exhibit, updating their graphics, and generally keeping their aesthetics current. By maintaining a tight, fresh focus on its products, Acumed maintains an updated look for the entire booth design.
Another angle on this concept is what Hogan calls a "constant state of refurb." "Some clients' exhibits are an ongoing blend of old and new components," Hogan says. "Rather than building an entirely new booth, they're constantly buying a new part here, refurbishing an old part there, and retiring pieces as needed." So each year, at least some part of the "old" exhibit is replaced or refurbished, which eliminates the capital expense for a whole new booth. Plus, a constantly evolving exhibit always has a new or resurfaced component or two, which makes the entire design feel fresh and new.

5. Replace Traditional Graphics With Flatscreens

"When it's time to invest in new exhibit graphics - whether they're worn out or simply outdated in terms of branding and messaging - consider replacing them with flatscreen panels," says Alicia Rosen, vice president of sales and marketing at Elements Exhibits LLC in North Las Vegas, NV.

While it may seem counterintuitive to replace existing graphics panels with comparatively expensive flatscreen monitors, doing so could save you a bundle in long-term graphics-production costs - and add a high-tech edge to your space. "With digital graphics, you don't need to actually reproduce materials over and over to stay up to date with your messaging," Rosen says. "Rather, you merely need to create new content and load it onto the monitor. While you'll pay around $750 for 42-inch monitors, you can recoup these costs over a couple of years by not having to constantly reproduce graphics." What's more, adding a touch of technology to an aging structure can help bring it up to speed with newer, more high-tech exhibit properties.

If you don't have the dough to spend on large-screen monitors, even adding digital-photo-frame-size monitors (or actual digital photo frames) to your display can ratchet up your high-tech appeal. For example, instead of using printed product-ID cards to label its displays, Sharp Electronics Corp. uses some of its mini monitors instead. Loaded with product info, the monitors are uber easy to update as product inventory changes, and they're perfectly in synch with Sharp's high-definition image.

6. Add Rental Components

"Sometimes you can liven up an outdated exhibit space by adding a few rental components - perhaps to replace worn custom elements, or to add a splash of color or style to freshen things up," says Mary Levi, senior design consultant/principal at Ion Exhibits in Itasca, IL. According to Levi, some simple rental items that can really do a lot for an outdated booth are hanging signs (which make the most of your vertical space), desks, colorful carpet, raised flooring, etc.

Castrigno turns to rental elements as a key part of his exhibit-refurbishment projects. "We're regularly asked to 'recharge' our clients' exhibits, and rental properties are one of our favorite solutions," he says. "Tension-fabric structures, in particular, will help revitalize any exhibit. You can certainly add huge dynamic towers and enormous suspended ceiling elements, but simple freestanding structures that accept fabric graphics will also do the trick. While you may or may not need to purchase custom graphics, you can rent the framework and slip the graphics over it. If you choose to purchase your own graphics, however, storage is a snap. After the show, you just fold up the fabric skin, flat pack it in a small box for future use, and send the frame back to the rental provider."

Plus, Castrigno adds, tensioned-fabric rental items are surprisingly affordable. For example, a 4-by-10-foot Pyramid structure from Moss Inc., which can be accented with color-changing gel lights, costs about $1,200 to rent for a three-day show. Purchasing a custom graphic for this structure will run you another $2,600 approximately, and those gel lights might add a few more dollars. "But all in all, adding tension-fabric structures is an affordable way to update a booth, especially when you compare it to the cost of an entirely new exhibit," Castrigno says.

7. Salvage Elements From Other Outdated Exhibits

According to several sources, the road to refurbishment is often paved with other outdated exhibits. They suggest that you begin any exhibit-refurbishment project by examining your existing inventory. Granted, their advice doesn't apply if you only have one exhibit that's used for every single show you attend. But if you have multiple exhibits and/or some unused parts and pieces sitting in storage, analyze your stash to see if any elements can be repurposed.

"Often, you can repurpose existing properties for a fraction of what it costs to buy a new booth," Parsons says. For example, you can integrate your portable back-wall display with other elements to create a fresh 10-by-10-foot or larger exhibit. "Your existing inventory of exhibit systems can be a cost-conscious solution to your problem - and a treasure chest of elements to upgrade or expand your presence," Parsons says.

Sharp Electronics pilfered this veritable treasure chest in 2009. The company wanted an updated look for the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association show (CEDIA), and it turned to Elements Exhibits for a solution. "They were looking for an exhibit that would be new to CEDIA attendees, but they weren't ready to purchase an entirely new booth," Rosen says. "So we designed a whole new property by using custom elements they already had in inventory. We updated graphics and freshened up a few pieces, but they ended up with what appeared to be a brand new booth. And by reusing and updating their existing properties, they only paid 50 percent of what it would have cost to purchase a new exhibit."

Along these same lines, Carty says that you can update your booth by simply renting contemporary exhibit furniture. "Companies like Cort Event Furnishings, AFR Furniture Rentals, and Agile Trade Show & Event Furnishings Inc. have some amazingly affordable, not to mention sexy and contemporary, rental furniture. Add a couple of their pieces to just about any booth, and it brings the booth's look and feel up a notch or two."

8. Reconfigure Existing Elements

You don't need to buy - or even rent - new elements to create a new look. Consider merely rearranging your exhibit elements instead.
Obviously, reconfiguring a modular exhibit is basically a no brainer, as the ability to switch around parts and pieces is a key selling point of these systems. But according to Levi, reconfiguring is a viable refurbishment option for custom exhibits as well.

"Just because a booth is designed to work in a certain configuration doesn't mean that's the only way it can work," Levi says. "With a little creativity, you can rearrange your components to create a completely new look. Or, you can play around with the size of your space and the orientation of your exhibit elements."

Levi explains that you could take a typical 10-by-20-foot in-line exhibit and turn it into an island exhibit by rearranging the components, and perhaps adding some ancillary items like a central tower, literature racks, a rented conference-room structure, etc. Certainly, the reverse option, which is probably a bit more affordable, would work as well. You could take a handful of elements from an island exhibit and create an in-line exhibit. "Of course, always check show-management regulations regarding size and height stipulations for your specific space," Levi says. "For example, your island exhibit's 10-foot tower likely isn't permissible in an in-line space."

9. Update Hardware and Lights

That old realtor's trick also applies to exhibits: Updating cabinet hardware and outdated light fixtures can really change the feel of a space. "You'd be surprised how these seemingly insignificant changes can improve the aesthetic in your booth," Hogan says. "New stainless-steel hardware on exhibit drawers, cabinets, and doors has the same effect as replacing old hardware in an outdated kitchen."

In terms of updating your exhibit lighting, Hogan suggests adding a few new lighting elements, such as a gobo featuring your logo, or some gels in your company's corporate color to help highlight a product area. "Also, you might refocus your existing lighting to help draw attention to any updated elements and detract attention away from exhibit components that may be showing some wear and tear. When it comes to exhibit lighting, even a few minor tweaks can make an old exhibit property look new again."

So before you throw your booth out with the bath water or throw your hands up in budget-induced despair, consider refurbishing your existing structure. A few smart, simple changes - including everything from reconfiguring exhibit elements to peppering your booth space with fresh accents and refinished surfaces - can quickly and affordably turn a stale exhibit into a breath of fresh air.  E

Linda Armstrong, senior writer; larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com

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