MODULAR STANDS: Modular on trial - Do modular units come a poor second to their custom-built cousins? Sharon Greaves asks industry experts to defend the charges most often levelled at modular

World events and economic trends have prompted a general tightening of belts in the second half of 2001, but this could be one reason why the modular market has remained strong. Suppliers say that clients with increasingly tight budgets are beginning to see how cost-effective modular systems can be.

Modular units may not make as big a statement as custom-built stands in an arena where there is limited time to capture people's imagination, but they are flexible and versatile.

The variety of systems and the wide range of components and accessories offered by suppliers means that there is now a design capability in modular systems that can enable exhibitors to achieve a truly individual and personalised, high quality stand without compromising on creativity and style.

Custom-built stands may make a point of difference but their shelf life is usually no longer than the duration of one show. Modular units, by contrast, can be reused time and again. Graphics can be refreshed over the course of a number of shows and the stand can be reinvigorated by being built in different configurations, and it can grow or contract depending on the space allocation from venue to venue. Moreover, the stand comprises the same key units so it becomes associated with a particular brand.

While the initial cost of a modular display system may be similar to a purpose-built stand, once bought there should be no need to spend more on equipment for several years. Suppliers insist that buying modular can give a saving of up to 40% over five exhibitions.

If there is no budget available to buy equipment outright or clients would like to try before they buy there are a range of lease and hire options to spread the cost over time or stretch the budget.

Despite all these benefits, some people remain unsure about going modular.

Event asked a panel of experts from the sector to defend the most common charges made against modular and put forward the case for the defence.

CHARGE 1 - There is no such thing as an original modular stand design

Nick Swallow, communications director, Furneaux Stewart You have to make a distinction. Off-the-peg modular stands are not original.

By definition they have to be versatile so they tend to be anonymous.

It's like buying a pair of trousers from Gap. The other sort of modularity where suppliers develop a kit of parts that is exclusive to their client is different. From 1994 to 1998 we made what we called the Jewel Box for Bentley and Rolls Royce. The stand comprised a set of modular platforms that were adaptable between shows. We mounted a Bentley vertically on one of them for one exhibition. It was a show-stopper of an idea but was based on a modular platform.

Richard Armitage, managing director, Octanorm

There would be no need for art colleges if we thought we had come to the end of the road with regard to design. We produce and sell Octanorm, which we say is a custom-built stand made with a system, and we are designing new profiles and ideas all the time. You can change the dimensions, sizes, models and colours, and make it two or three storeys high. We have recently launched a range of hinges that fit on any extrusion. You can do the most interesting shapes with them and take the stand out of the normal geometry of 90 deg and 45 deg angles. You can do all kinds of shapes at whatever angle you want.

CHARGE 2 - Modular units don't attract as big a crowd as custom-built stands

Anna Davies, marketing manager, Nomadic Display

A pop-up frame allows for a high-impact graphic capability and can be eye-catching from a distance. Our pop-up system Instand can be four metres high, one wall can be a certain width, any combination of quads can be used, and surfaces can be flat or curved. In early 2000 we introduced a modular hard-panelled system called Platinum that comprises lightweight panels with laminate finishes to give it more of a custom-built look. It incorporates plasma screens and can bear more weight. Clients can integrate computer work stations, cabinets, counters and bars into the design and we now have rotating turntables to which a graphic or object can be attached.

It is a customised element within the modular stand framework. Clients can integrate the Instand and the Platinum, combining laminate finishes with the pop-up, which works well for graphic impact.

Chris Stewart, managing director, Electro-Tech Colour

Drawing the eye is the basis of any stand. Ten years ago the structure was pretty basic but since then it has come on in leaps and bounds. There are different shapes now such as S-bends and you can form bridges and take the stand height up to as much as ten feet. Units can also incorporate more interesting lighting, in-built shelves and plasma screens. A lot depends on the graphics. The better the design, the more impact the stand will have. With shell schemes the graphics hang from the vertical and can look drab, particularly if they are on a flat surface. With modular systems, the graphics hang well to form a solid image and you can have large imagery covering an eight foot by six foot stand.

CHARGE 3 - Modular stand graphics are difficult to assemble, take apart and store

Angelique Martin, marketing executive, Clip Display Services

The simplicity of modular systems means that nothing is more flexible and adaptable. Clip modular units are simple to store because they can be flat-packed. Approximately three quarters of our customers choose to build and break the modular systems themselves because of the ease of use. For exhibitors that have purchased smaller systems, an eight-panel kit can be set up in less than ten minutes. This is about the same time as it takes to put up a traditional pop-up display with magnetic bars.

Clients with larger systems sometimes choose to have our on-site team take the equipment to the exhibition and build it. After the event, the team then dismantles the modular stand, takes an inventory, cleans it, checks it and stores it. This offers companies a highly convenient full turnkey service whereby clients can just turn up for the exhibition on the day and leave at the end.

Andy Powell, sales and marketing manager, Protean

It is a terribly sweeping statement to say all modular stands are easy to assemble but that is why they were invented in the first place. Clients can take our product, Lite, along to a show and set it up themselves.

There are no tools involved in building the stand and components are designed to be simple to slot together. The vast majority of people store, install and transport the units themselves. Later this year we are introducing a product that is basically a backdrop - a panel system similar to a pop-up, which will also be straightforward to construct.

As a simple rule of thumb, Lite is suitable for stands up to 60 sq m in size.

Above that our product Form is better, although it is still easy to assemble.

It needs maybe three people to build it whereas a purpose-built stand requires a team of six or seven contractors.

CHARGE 4 - Shell schemes are just as good as modular stands and you have the added benefit of not having to carry them around and set them up

John Standerline, commercial director, Stanco

We build shell schemes and modular stands with the Octanorm system. The idea of a shell scheme is that you arrive with a minimum of effort and begin working the stand. A shell scheme offers a great chance of attracting a crowd because it is a sensible structure and so allows you to do what you like. The time management is also considerably more effective. All you need do is apply the graphics to the wall. Neither does a pop-up display stand out in an exhibition space, it looks like you are doing it on the cheap, although if you incorporate it into a larger display within a shell scheme it can look effective.

Jane Munro, marketing manager, Marler Haley

You may have to carry modular stands around but they are so compact and light nowadays. Most cases have wheels and you can simply put them in the boot of a car. All they require is one person to assemble them. Modular systems can be used in different scenarios, with banner stands and pop-up systems, for example, to make them more interesting. Synergy, a modular pop-up system lends itself to numerous applications and environments, from an instant graphic display to a full-scale exhibition stand. The ability to add or remove modules at any time ensures the system can be reconfigured to meet all requirements. Pop-up assembly also ensures clients benefit from a compact and portable system and minimal build-up time without compromise to creativity. Shell schemes, by contrast, are all very similar and fail to stand out. Often they look as if they are a last-minute and cheap option with posters dotted around in a haphazard manner.

VERDICT

"Gone are the days when a modular stand was a square, boxy system with framed panels. You no longer have to sacrifice visual impact. Curves, graphics, lighting and special finishes can be used to create a custom-built look with a modular system,

says Clip Display Services marketing executive Angelique Martin.

Indeed, a sea of modular stands on the exhibition floor all have the potential to look different and attract the eye with an increasing number of variations on lighting, height, shape and graphics.

Martin says: "Units can grow with a client's needs - a six-panel kit can be developed into a huge all-singing, all-dancing stand that has the adaptability to be reconfigured to provide a fresh look for each show.

Nomadic Display marketing manager Anna Davies adds: "We have realised that with the custom-build market able to offer endless possibilities, suppliers of modular stands have to be in a position to compete with that.

Another point in favour of modular units is that they are easy to set up and pack down very small because of the nature of the collapsible structure.

The larger the stand the more complex the design, but in those circumstances many suppliers have a build-up and breakdown team if the client requires one.

Finally, modular units prove to be an economical tool. They fill a gap in the market for people who want to exhibit but do not have the budget to commission a high-end solution.


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