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lighting

hen your to-do list is already longer than Lil Wayne's rap sheet, adding something as simple as "order new show shirts" can send you over the edge. And if you tack on a task as monumental as "master the art of exhibit and event lighting," you're likely to go Lindsay Lohan loony.

Nevertheless, what you don't know about lighting can hurt both you and your exhibit- or event-marketing program. Without at least some bare-bones knowledge of lighting do's and don'ts, you're likely to jeopardize your program's effectiveness, and maybe even find yourself in the dark at your next trade show or event.

So to amp up your lighting IQ faster than you can say "light-emitting diode," EXHIBITOR enlisted the help of five lighting experts. But instead of asking them for a soup-to-nuts lighting guide, which you probably wouldn't find time to read until 2014, we asked for a list of the most common pitfalls you should avoid in your exhibit and event programs. After all, when it comes to planning and executing a lighting strategy, knowing what to do is certainly important, but understanding what not to do can save you from making major - not to mention costly - mistakes.

Here, then, are 10 of the exhibit and event industry's biggest lighting mistakes. Avoid these potholes, and your road to successful exhibits and events will not only be well lit; it will likely be shorter than a typical Hollywood marriage.

Lack of Communication

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate." When Paul Newman uttered this infamous line in the movie "Cool Hand Luke," you'd think he was speaking directly to a group of marketers and lighting designers, says Paul Fine, president and principal designer at lighting-design firm Fine Design Associates Inc. in Doylestown, PA. "Exhibit lighting doesn't exist in a vacuum. It works in conjunction with exhibit graphics, audiovisual, furniture, etc. But many exhibitors forget to 'loop in' their exhibit designers when it comes to everything from their alterations in exhibit materials and overall marketing strategy to their last-minute layout changes."

Plus, according to our experts, event marketers seem to suffer from the same kind of forgetfulness. Often, they move key elements - including everything from the speaker's podium to prominent product displays - and somehow forget to tell their lighting designer until setup.

"First and foremost, make sure your lighting designers have a basic grasp of your marketing strategy - and any changes that you make to it along the way," says Kenneth Farley, president and lead lighting designer at Illumination Production Services Inc. in West Haverstraw, NY. "When creating and updating a lighting design, I need to know what products, messages, and areas within the booth are critical to the exhibitor. That way, I can direct the lighting - not to mention attendees' attention - appropriately."

Farley illustrates his point with an example from a recent event where he was charged with illuminating several key graphics. "Based on the minimal information we'd received from our client, 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 scampered 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 event."

In addition to marketing-strategy information, Fine prefers to be made aware of any changes to the floor plan or materials no matter how insignificant they might seem. "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," Fine says. 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 all of your presentation and lighting equipment. And if you merely switch from matte laminate to a high-gloss finish, you might be generating unwanted glare.

"Every change you make isn't going to require a complete 'do over' for your lighting design," Fine says. "But you'd be surprised how many little tweaks can turn into big headaches for lighting designers - especially when the designers aren't made aware of these changes until setup. These at-show headaches, then, can also equate to additional labor hours and unexpected costs. A quick e-mail informing your lighting designers about your changes prior to the show or event is often all you need to head off these headaches."

Finally, make sure your lighting-design crew is part of your marketing team - as opposed to a substitute player relegated to the bench. "Once we're at the show, the lighting-design team is often left in the dark concerning critical in-booth activities, such as pre-show press briefings, after-hours events, and booth-photography plans - all of which affect our setup schedule and interfere with any on-the-fly changes we need to make," Fine says. "And often, we aren't on the exhibitor's list of setup personnel, which makes obtaining setup credentials and show badges a constant battle."

So the more info your lighting designers have regarding everything from strategy and floor-plan changes to at-show schedules and keynote-session switches, the greater their chances of meeting your needs and sidestepping additional costs.

Too Many Chiefs ...

When it comes to information, our experts suggest you practically spread it around with abandon. But when it comes to sign-off authority, they recommend that you safeguard it more than your real age and weight.

"Many exhibitors waste scads of time and money by not establishing a clear hierarchy for initial lighting-design approval," Fine says. "With too many cooks in the kitchen and no single chef signing off on the designs, budgets, equipment, etc., exhibitors not only lose valuable time and money; they often muddy their lighting-design's effectiveness."

Plus, without a clear decision-making hierarchy, everyone from product engineers to salespeople can run amok at the show or event. Maybe a product designer suddenly wants to re-angle the lights to highlight his or her pet product, or perhaps a salesperson wants to redirect lighting to draw attention to a particular graphics message. When all of these people have the authority to alter your lighting design, you're bound to incur unnecessary labor costs - and increase the likelihood that your design will stray from its original intent.

So before you begin the lighting-design process, identify one person from your company to act as your lighting specialist, and give this person authority to make changes or approve lighting as required. Also ensure that you have someone on site at the live event - preferably this same lighting specialist - to sign off on any last-minute changes. Too many cooks can spoil the broth - and implode your lighting budget.

Hot, Cramped Quarters

"Most clients have no idea how much space lighting equipment requires, much less the amount of space needed for proper ventilation," says Rick O'Neill, president of Light Source Inc. in Milford, MI. "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 at best, or lead to a potential fire hazard at worst."

"For almost all but the smallest of lighting systems, the exhibit not only needs to accommodate the light fixtures, but also heat-generating dimming and control systems along with the support structures - such as truss and overhead structural elements - that hold the fixtures and cabling," O'Neill says. "Plus, depending on the size of the lighting 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."

"What's more," Farley says, "many exhibit halls require exhibitors to house electrical equipment such as transformers, along with dimmers, switches, and cabling within their booths. These things give off a lot of heat and take up a lot of room. So make sure you and your exhibit house consider your lighting-system space requirements, but also investigate show-hall electrical variables to make sure you have adequate space to accommodate equipment."

Luckily for most exhibitors, properly allocating space for lighting-system components requires little more than a thoughtful consultation between your exhibit builder, your lighting designer, and perhaps the show's electrical provider. But once again, if you change anything about your booth layout, make sure to have another one of these thoughtful consultations. For example, when your storage space is used to house lighting-system equipment, you can't suddenly add a new AV presentation and expect to cram its equipment into the same storage space. It may fit just fine. But you don't want to wait until you're on the show floor to discover how much space you do - or don't - have available.

Incomplete Exhibit Diagrams

While scrimping on your space requirements is certainly a no-no, forgetting to include lighting truss and rigging structures in your exhibit diagram is a cardinal sin.

Many lighting systems include significant structural elements, such as overhead truss and rigging. However, exhibitors have a tendency to focus their attention only on floor-based items, and thus, they often forget to include these lighting elements in exhibit diagrams that are submitted to show management. When lighting designers and labor crews go to install these items during setup without prior approval from show management, the
best-case scenario is that the work is temporarily shut down pending show management's inspection and approval. Worst-case scenario, show management may halt the work, disapprove of the structures - perhaps because they violate height or venue-related safety restrictions, for example - and force the exhibitor to remove them entirely, at the exhibiting company's expense, of course.

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, O'Neill says. "Each venue has different weight restrictions for suspended rigging," he says. "And failing to approve your weight load prior to setup can significantly delay or even abort your installation altogether."

"The opposite side of this coin can also be problematic," Farley says. "Not only must show management be aware of what you plan to erect in your space, but you and your lighting team must be aware of any obstructions, such as venue columns and suspended catwalks, within your space."

According to Farley, "Despite identical square footage, one space isn't necessarily like the other, 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. What's worse, 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 the presence or absence of obstructions directly over your booth. The rigging supervisor might even be able to give you a drawing of the venue's overhead space, which can greatly assist your designers in creating the proper rigging system for your specific exhibit."

Fixture Noise

"While you'd think that a lighting system emits nothing more than illumination, think again," says Mike Ivey, president of Mi Media Productions, an event- and multimedia-production firm in Irvine, CA. "Sure, there's the heat that necessitates ventilation, but many systems also emit noise."

"On a busy trade show floor, noisy lighting systems probably aren't an issue," Ivey says. "But if you're hosting an intense meeting where the audience and the environment is very quiet, you'll often hear a slight hum from the electrical or the whirring and buzzing sound from the fans cooling the lights. In a large venue with a big audience, this sound may go unnoticed. But where you run into big problems is with the placement of mics or audio-recording equipment. What might be a small hum from a cooling fan could turn into an almost jet-engine roar when amplified and broadcast to the audience - or recorded for post-event use."

To eliminate this issue, pre-event communication is key. Lighting and sound designers should exchange information regarding the location of their equipment and any potential sound or feedback it might emit. If your designers are aware of potential problems prior to the event, they can typically plan around them by moving equipment a few feet in one direction or another. Ivey also suggests that any recording contractors be looped into this discussion. "At the event, you might not hear the hum from the fans," he says. "But when you hit play on your audio recording, there it is - and at this point, there's really nothing you can do about it."

Budget Bombshells

Exhibitors usually understand the initial costs of their lighting system, but operational costs - including everything from show services to labor costs to mask ambient lighting - are often nasty surprises. It's not so much that these costs are overwhelming; it's just that any unexpected expense can wreak havoc with your budget.

According to Jeff Rudner, president of Exhibit Lighting Group Inc. in West Hills, CA, one of these often-overlooked costs is lighting-related show services. "Some exhibitors forget to figure in the costs to install, operate, and dismantle lighting systems, while others drastically underestimate them."

Another seemingly unexpected charge involves any changes you make to your exhibit elements or booth layout. "Anytime you dramatically alter the position of your exhibitry, your lighting elements must move along with the booth components," Rudner says. "And even minor changes in the position of your exhibit lighting typically require additional costs, such as running new cables, adding or changing out fixtures, rerouting electrical connections, etc."

O'Neill has run into this problem countless times. "Our auto-show clients tend to make a lot of last-minute changes - maneuvering a key vehicle from one section of the exhibit to another, or changing a two-car display to a three-car display, for example," he says. "Since our clients don't usually think of their vehicles as exhibitry, they often don't remember that when their vehicles move around in the space, so, too, must our light fixtures. When they make changes on the fly, they're often surprised by the I&D labor and equipment costs required to move the lighting or maybe even relocate an entire truss section."

Finally, according to Farley, ambient-light control is another budget buster. "Whenever you want to control the ambient light in a convention center - whether that means shutting off overhead lighting or simply shielding your exhibit from direct exposure to it - 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, you still have to pay someone to do the flipping. In reality, you may have to pay for the labor and equipment required to either hoist someone up to the ceiling to actually unscrew each bulb, or to attach draping around the fixtures to limit the light shining into your booth."

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."

Also make sure that all price quotes from your lighting vendor include estimates for all related expenses, such as electrical, rigging, labor, drayage, and use of additional equipment or machinery, such as condors/scissor lifts, and ancillary rigging requirements such as a spanner truss. And if you want to limit ambient light, make sure your lighting designer knows this in advance of the show. The designer can investigate charges to help you make an informed decision, or the designer might even be able to rearrange your own lighting system, successfully making ambient lighting an insignificant factor and thereby eliminating the cost entirely.

Glaring Issues

"Glare is a reflection of light due to shallow angles in which the lighting is pointed at a target," Rudner says. "When lighting is designed correctly, the angles are aligned at a steep pitch on a target so the reflected light doesn't bounce into someone's eyes, but rather, is reflected down to the floor. So if your lighting designers are on the ball, glare should be minimal. But if the exhibit or event planner makes last-minute changes to reflective surfaces - particularly products or equipment such as LCD monitors, televisions, cell-phone screens, Kindles, etc. - by moving them vertically or horizontally even a few inches, you could end up with eye-level glare, and no time for the lighting designers to fix it."

Along these same lines, if you're selling sensitive electronic equipment, try to simulate your lighting in terms of angles and intensity prior to the event, checking to make sure your products still work in this environment. "For example, I've done a lot of toy shows where the toys use an infrared signal to trigger a response in the toy, and the overhead lighting overpowered the signal, rendering the product useless," Farley says. "You can eliminate the problem simply by shifting the lights away from the demo area or by providing a 'dark' area in the booth for product demos such as this."

As our experts assert, problems with glare or the functionality of sensitive electronic equipment aren't hard to solve. But you don't want to solve them on the first day of the event in front of an audience of thousands. So prior to the show or event, make sure your lighting-design team has a list of any highly reflective surfaces and/or sensitive equipment you plan to display as well as their vertical and horizontal location within the space.

Power Shortage

"We run into this same problem at almost every event: The client company doesn't want to pay what it feels is an outrageously overpriced power bill and therefore orders less electricity than we suggest," Ivey says. "As a result, we're often forced to remove some fixtures on site, or to juggle consumption and stagger the use of fixtures so we're not pulling more than our allotted amperage all at once. And sometimes, if the client ignores our warnings, it's possible for the entire event to go black. And nothing scars an event like the loss of power."

"Electricity is pretty much a fixed cost at every event venue, and we're very conscious that it often costs $3 per amp plus the labor to install it," Ivey says. "We know it's not cheap. But if you want the lighting and its benefits, you simply can't scrimp on the electricity. When we tell you that a fixture will require a certain number of amps, please believe us. It's our job to know how much electricity we need for the fixtures we're using, but it's your job to actually provide that power so that both the fixtures and the lighting designers can do their jobs."

Argh! Ugly Exhibitry!

"When some exhibitors flip the switch on their new lighting systems, they suddenly discover that their exhibit components, or even their products, are damaged or dirty," Fine says. "While lighting adds drama and draws attention to key areas, it can also accentuate wrinkles in graphics, mismatched laminates, dust and fingerprints, etc."

O'Neill has run across this problem at auto shows for years. "Our auto-show clients often want us to 'do something with the lights' to hide scratches or imperfections in their vehicles' paint," he says. "However, the purpose of lighting is to illuminate and attract attention to the product, so there's little a light can do to hide flaws. Granted, the absence of light will often solve the problem, but a better solution is simply to fix the blemish in the first place. With scratched cars on the show floor, the solution isn't so easy. But you can generally eliminate most 'unsightly' problems with other products and exhibitry by carefully inspecting them prior to the show - preferably under similar lighting conditions - to illuminate worn or damaged areas. Some minor pre-show repairs will keep you looking your best on the floor. And of course, once your booth is up and ready for business, wipe down or polish all surfaces before the show and at periodic points throughout it to eliminate fingerprints and smudges that might be exposed by your lighting."

When You've Seen One Venue ...

Chicago's McCormick Place and the Georgia World Congress Center, for example, may sound like similar venues; They're both relatively large event spaces within major metropolitan areas. But take a closer look at some of the nuances of each space - such as the ceiling structures and available setup equipment - and you'll soon realize they're as different as a two-story Colonial versus a traditional ranch.

According to Farley, venues have drastically different ceiling issues. "There are variations in fireproofing, fixed points, load limitations, ease of access, rules and restrictions, etc. 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," Farley says.

"Most exhibitors and event planners are also surprised to learn that the type of equipment available for I&D, such as scissor lifts and condor lifts, varies depending on the general contractor used and/or the venue in which the show is held," Farley says. "For example, we were doing a show in Orlando, FL, and our client had a large multilayered ceiling piece. During the design process, we eliminated one of the ceiling panels to allow access through the center of the structure so we could install and focus the lights. But when we got to the show, we discovered that the general contractor only had straight boom lifts (featuring a straight arm that moves in a singular angle up and down) instead of articulating boom lifts (featuring an arm that bends and turns, and ultimately provides more agility and flexibility). And no matter how hard we tried, the straight lift wouldn't fit into the hole we'd made in the ceiling structure. Luckily for us, we located an articulating lift owned by the venue to complete our work. But without it, we would have had to either go without most of the lights, or tear down the ceiling panels, install the lighting, and reinstall the panels - all while putting the rest of the exhibit install on hold."

If you go into every event expecting your lighting setup to work exactly the same way, you're going into it blind, and kinda dumb to boot. So make sure your lighting-design team is not only familiar with each venue on your calendar, but also well aware of what equipment will be available for each.

As you can see, sidestepping most exhibit- and event-lighting snafus involves little more than careful planning, open communication, and a bit of pre-event research. And while understanding these 10 potential potholes probably won't make you an exhibit- and event-lighting master, it'll help you keep your lighting costs to the bare minimum, maintain an effective lighting strategy, and ensure that your marketing event doesn't unexpectedly fade to black. E

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