MODULAR STANDS: The shape of things to come - Modular equipment has its advantages over custom built, not least of which is cost. But Rupert Corry finds the market is still striving to create products to suit everyone's needs and tastes

Demand for modular display equipment is booming as more companies than ever turn to exhibitions and events in a bid to increase sales. But with hordes of companies competing for attention in over-crowded exhibition halls and busy railway station concourses, why do so many opt for pre-fabricated modular stands and equipment that can often blend into the background?

Demand for modular display equipment is booming as more companies than ever turn to exhibitions and events in a bid to increase sales. But with hordes of companies competing for attention in over-crowded exhibition halls and busy railway station concourses, why do so many opt for pre-fabricated modular stands and equipment that can often blend into the background?

The experts insist modular equipment has a string of advantages - not least of which is cost. Custom-built stands are expensive, need a small army to put up and require pretty serious haulage to get them from one place to the next. They are well suited to major corporate events such as car shows, but are often impractical for the small- to medium-sized firm on a budget.

Exhibition Services senior account manager James Dunman thinks price is a major factor. 'Motor show budgets are huge, but not everyone has the money of BMW. Modular kit fills a huge gap and has a much better shelf life,' he says.

Modular equipment is also far more flexible than custom-made kit and can be adapted to suit most exhibiting environments from roadshows and airports to full-blown exhibition halls the size of Earls Court.

Custom-built stands, on the other hand, only really work in larger exhibitions and events and they can be expensive and complicated to alter. James says: 'We have a massive modular range so people can virtually build a custom stand from component pieces. For example, we might use five pop-ups to create a massive wall, then you can add or take from them depending on how much space you have to work with. You can also add graphic panels and monitors or set up display cases for the product itself. We look at every situation and see how we can make people look individual using modular.'



Built to last

Reusability is another key advantage. Well-made kit can work over and over again and last up to 20 years.

Andy McWilliams, project manager at equipment supplier Hirex, says longevity depends on the price of a system. 'Cheap and nasty might last two weeks or you could get something that lasts longer,' he says. 'Aluminium construction is usually more durable than plastic. Some of our Click stock is 15 years old and still working fine. Obviously a lot also depends on how well you look after it.'

Equipment such as pop-ups, graphic panels and banner stands are also highly portable and ideal for salespeople working in the field. They are light, easy to carry and can fold into the size of a carry-case. They are also quick and easy to put up and rarely require special tools or skills other than perhaps an allen key. They also work well in areas where people don't want to leave them overnight, such as station concourses, and are ideal for product sampling and displays in places such as supermarkets.

One of the most popular items, the pop-up, was invented in the US ostensibly for salespeople to carry on aeroplanes and put up and take down quickly. However, they were also designed to beat tough labour laws enforced by the Teamsters union, who demanded that anything that required the use of tools had to be put together by its members.

But things have moved on - in American industrial relations and equipment design - and today there is a massive range of modular display products to suit just about all needs and tastes.

Jonathon Evitt, director at equipment supplier Tecna International, claims the enduring success of equipment such as pop-ups is down to a boom in graphics technology over the past 20 years.

'The emphasis has been to produce high-quality graphics quickly and cheaply,' he says. 'Things that weren't possible five years ago are now within the grasp of the most novice of users.'

However, like many in the industry, he believes the market has reached saturation point for many products. 'The straight pop-up market is not growing because the people who use them are getting more sophisticated.

Modular systems are also limited by strict criteria. They must be fireproof, lightweight, easy to use, safe and designed to do what they are meant to,' he says.

'New product development is also fantastically expensive while expectations are much higher. These factors prevent the development of anything that is outright new and rather lead to innovative adaptations to improve existing products.'

Tecna's recently launched T3 is a case in point. An extension of the pop-up system, it will fold in to the space of a car boot. However, once up, it makes a three-dimensional lightweight aluminium frame that supports monitors and lightboxes as well as straight graphics.

The Synergy system recently launched by Marler Haley is another innovation that overcomes one of the main weak-points of pop-ups - their inflexibility.

Traditionally, pop-ups come with a fixed shape, either straight or curved, that cannot be altered. The frame of the Synergy, however, comes apart and can be rebuilt to make it straight, curved or S-shaped.

Some in the industry say it has one potential drawback in that it is more complicated to assemble than the basic model and requires a degree of technical nous to put up in a hurry. But Marler Haley marketing manager Jane Munro dismisses the claim and is quick to stress that its advantages far outweigh any technical concerns. 'It needs an allen key but is very simple. It uses the scissor system that most pop-ups have. There's a lot of room for it because of its flexibility,' she says.



Value for money

'The design is more of a system than a pop-up and is meant for exhibition use. Normal pop-ups have graphic finishes but ours can also be in laminate, which gives it a more customised look. When people make an investment they want value for money and the Synergy's flexibility will give them cost savings.'

Technology has also enhanced the once humble roll-down banner stand - those that pull down like a blind and lock into place.

The Penguin sprung-back system uses state-of the-art carbon fibres, which act as a spring to keep the panel taut on the stand. They range in size from 600mm wide by 2.2m high to one metre wide by three metres high. The whole contraption collapses in to a 800mm-long tube and weighs just 4.5 kilograms.

Department store chain Debenhams recently snapped up 60 to put in its windows and Chanel took 40 out to the US to make a backdrop for a catwalk show.

They are also suited to more everyday applications, according to David Miall, managing director of one company that makes them, Key Systems. 'They work well as on-stand graphic displays and of course they're ideal for travelling salespeople who want something easy to carry that they can put up quickly,' he says. 'They also make great information boards that can be used at the front of exhibitions or in company foyers.'

Prices start at pounds 249, which is less than a lot of other banner stands on the market, and the carbon fibre construction offers a lifetime guarantee. One indicator of the burgeoning demand for show equipment is the plethora of e-commerce websites that are springing up. www.expostuff.com, www.exhibitionswork.co.uk, and www.weselldisplays.com (see case study) are just a handful of the many that offer sales and information online.



CASE STUDY: weselldisplays.com

Exhibition Services blazed a trail on to the web for kit suppliers with the launch of its web site www.weselldisplays.com earlier in the year.

The company made its first online sale in 24 hours and claims to have enjoyed a steady turnover since.

The idea, not surprisingly, came from the US where Exhibition Services senior account manager James Dunman spotted its potential while on a visit for a friend's wedding. 'I thought if they can do it why can't I?' he says.

Weselldisplays supplies the budget end of the market for panel systems, pop-ups, and banner stands, for between 10-15% less than Exhibition Services' normal retail prices.

'The biggest-selling budget stuff works well online and we keep the colours basic - there's only blue and grey,' James says. 'We don't want to give people too many options because they won't make a choice.'

Exhibition Services E-business manager Lyn Leggett admits the site has had minimal impact on general turnover but says it has achieved what they expected. 'People can still get the full personal service for more complex designs and we provide a host of back-up services,' she says. 'It's for people who know what they want and want to pay less for it.'




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