The exhibition and trade fair circus gets busier and busier. The big shows get more and more important. And the stands get grander and grander.
But while the small stands of yester-year could happily be discarded after one use, the bigger sets that have become popular recently are too expensive to be thrown away, which creates the problem of how and where to store sets between shows.
Many shipping companies have offered storage facilities for a while, but the growth in the modular market is making it a specialist area in its own right.
Keith Rose, managing director of freight services at Britannic International, says: 'We had little exhibitions storage business five years ago, now we have two-thirds of a 1,858 sq m warehouse full of it. People used to custom-build and then wreck it at the end of the show. Now they save time and money by having the same stand which they will use for two or three years.'
Perhaps the most spectacular development in this area is the pounds 14.3m, 18,580 sq m storage centre that Transeuro opened in Wembley last August. The company says the facility, which was developed after executives visited a similar, but smaller site in Switzerland, is more advanced than any in the world.
Many storage facilities use a container system that lets customers have their own private store, but while old ISO containers can lead to problems with moisture damage in the summer, the Transeuro site has 1,850 purpose-built 20-foot containers that provide humidity control.
The fully automated warehouse is also a personnel-free zone. Two cranes read microchips in the containers to select the right ones to bring down when needed.
The metal building is fireproof and with the containers stored so closely together no one can get between them to break in.
'Customers have their own container which is effectively a lock-up. We can put two containers on a vehicle and send it to a site - the customer can load the kit and lock it up and no one can touch it,' says Transeuro general manager, commercial division, Mike Smith.
Another option is purpose-built wooden cases on heavy gauge steel racking, which can be more flexible than containers in a huge warehouse. Storage like this will cost about 12p per sqft a week and operators say the key to getting value for money is to store high. Nottingham-based KB Event, which gets two-thirds of its revenue from conferences and events, has racking up to 65 feet high plus two mezzanine floors in its warehouse which allow heavier objects to be stored safely.
It is usually preferable to have equipment cased to protect it against the damp, mice or any other kind of hazard.
'Part of this is about having warehouse crews that know what they are doing, but casing is always worth it in the long run,' says KB Event director Stuart McPherson.
Aside from keeping the equipment safely, the main challenge for storage companies is to run computer systems which track where each piece of equipment is at any one time. That way, when the client sends details of the next show, the relevant equipment can easily be located and shipped.
Before a storage facility sends the equipment to the show site it will typically be checked to see whether any maintenance is required. Hiring painters or carpenters is much cheaper at a storage facility than at an exhibition venue.
But before being built at the show the stands have to be transported there. And nothing is worse than arriving at your destination to find your equipment has been damaged in transit.
Mark Carhill, sales and marketing manager at Rock-it Cargo, says: 'A lot of stuff arrives with us either in an unpacked state or not packed very well. Often you will find surfaces or corners are damaged.'
To limit the chances of damage, transit companies recommend equipment is housed in specially constructed wooden crates. 'It can be hard to make massive cases for sets but it protects the scenery,' Carhill says. 'Sometimes people are reluctant to do it, but if they invest in crates they can be re-used.'
And it is not just stand equipment that needs to be protected by decent containers. Literature, for example, is surprisingly heavy and often needs special cases, especially if it is going overseas.
Casing with everything
Britannic's Rose says: 'We recommend casing everything. It takes two to three hours to unload a trailer with a fork lift if it is all cased, but it can take half a dozen men most of a day if it is not.'
A good transit strategy starts with the design of your set. Ideally large sets should be built in small pieces that can fit in a container. Cases created should be container-compatible too so that they do not end up on slower cargo ships. The importance of clear labelling is underlined by those working in this area, with company name and stand number visible from all sides.
In case things do go wrong - either as a result of damage or loss - companies need to be sure that they have adequate insurance cover for transit and for the equipment when it is on site. Carhill says companies with global policies should not assume that equipment is covered during all stages.
It is a good idea for equipment which is fragile or vulnerable to changes in orientation to be given 'shockwatch' or 'tiltwatch' stickers that change colour if the box has been subjected to either condition. This encourages handlers to be aware of the risks as well as alerting those concerned that a potentially damaging event has occurred.
And have someone on site to supervise unloading - a local unloading 300 containers may begin to get careless.
'I have seen things treated badly on site - people driving fork lifts too casually and putting blades straight through cases. For big projects we would send supervisors over,' says Rose.
With decent packing and someone to supervise unloading, most risks have been covered. Still, as Rose says, you cannot control for everything.
'Most shipping companies will have lost the odd carton, but we lost a whole truck once. A Russian truck driver simply decided to stop off and see his girlfriend in East Germany. We were all waiting in Moscow for two days. He just thought, 'Oh well, I can do what I like, I am Russian'.'