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Adding custom printing to tents

Event Production, Features, Management | June 1, 2010 | By:

Help your customers stand out among a sea of white structures with graphics printed on tents.

Businesses and organizations competing for the attention of consumers do everything possible to distinguish themselves. As such, everyone from NASCAR sponsors to farmers market vendors can benefit from the branding afforded by custom printed tents.

“Printed tents make great mobile billboards,” says Jay Hoesli, graphics division manager for Anchor Industries Inc., Evansville, Ind. “They allow advertisers to stand out in the crowd. It is a great way to identify your company or organization, and they have the added benefit of offering shade and shelter.”

Damien Vieille, CEO of the U.S. division of French tent and canopy manufacturer Vitabri, agrees that a custom printed tent sets a corporation or sponsor apart.

“When you go to an event—such as a golf tournament, fair or corporate event, for instance—a printed tent has a better chance to stay on visitors’ minds and give them a good, memorable image,” he says.

Know your printing options

Tent manufacturers, rental companies and event planners can offer a variety of options for printing on a tent. “Vinyl-coated or laminated materials are the most suitable and affordable for digital printing,” says Hal Lapping, president of Economy Tent International, Miami, Fla. “Our printed covers are then coated with lacquer to resist fading and increase durability.”

Anchor Industries takes a similar approach. “As long as the tent is made of white vinyl, it can be printed on,” Hoesli says. He adds that the best print quality is on 16 oz. coated blackout vinyl, which prevents transparency of an image. “The more coating on a fabric, the better the print.”

But sometimes, blackout or opaque vinyl isn’t the answer. “In some applications, bleed-through of the graphical image is desired, and either translucent or completely transparent vinyls are used,” says Alex Kouzmanoff, vice president of Aztec Tents, Torrance, Calif.

In terms of printing methods, digital printing is the most common process to add graphics to tents. “Digital printing is often a more permanent option used for recurring events or permanent applications,” Kouzmanoff explains. “The artwork that is printed directly to the tent fabric is not removable.”

The digital printing method uses solvent inks, which are rated up to three years outdoors and stand up to the elements, and they adhere well to the vinyl. Another option: eco-solvent or UV-curable inks. “We primarily use UV inks, which are environmentally friendly because they lack VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and a solvent that evaporates while drying,” says Bruce Dickinson, vice president of Rainier Industries in Tukwila, Wash.

Additionally, the digital printing process is continually improving. “Significant progress has been made in printing speed, efficiency and the cost of the printing equipment,” Lapping notes. Adds Hoesli: “There are now printers that offer white ink cartridges, allowing you to print on colored materials. Manufacturers are also making flatbed printers that make it easier to cut the final pieces.”

Digital printing, however, isn’t ideal in every situation. “Larger tents with multiple cutting patterns make it more difficult to utilize the direct digital printing method,” Kouzmanoff says.

Other printing options include digital dye sublimation, which uses a large rotary heat press that turns the ink into a gas and bonds with the fiber in the material, rather than becoming a surface graphic. This method is used for polyester- and nylon-based materials, which Vieille prefers for small tents or canopies. “The new types of polyester we use are almost as resistant as vinyl and still easy to clean,” he notes. “And the new improvement in sublimation ink makes it possible to transform your white ‘regular’ tent into a very beautiful and high-range project.” Other printing options include silk screen, stencil and transfer (the last of which is used on polyester-acrylic blends).

Think of the economy

Custom printed tents present a catch-22 for tent rental companies and event planners: the recession has tightened their clients’ belts, yet the importance of product and corporate branding is stronger than ever. “Business is becoming harder and really aggressive, so event planners have to offer attractive and innovative solutions for customers,” Vieille says.

If printing an entire tent is too costly, other less-expensive options are available. “Printing sidewalls is an attractive option because they have a large display area and simple installation,” Lapping says. “We can also use large printed banners over the tent because of their high visibility.” Tent companies also report using custom digital printing for end panels, flags, table or floor skirting, table coverings, carpeting and even awnings outside the tent.

Another cost-effective and popular choice for tent graphics is a decal, which is applied to a tent without graphics for one-time or temporary use. There are two types of decal applications. The first option is text or a logo cut from a colored vinyl decal, resulting in a monochromatic logo or text that can be applied directly to a tent or sidewall. The second option is direct printing of a logo or image to a decal, which can be applied directly to the tent or sidewall.

“Decal-style graphics are most often nonreusable, as the decal will tend to develop air bubbles and separate from the main tent fabric when it’s folded and stored,” Kouzmanoff says. “Decals are most often removed immediately after the event and trashed. The longer they stay on the tent vinyl, the harder it becomes to remove them and the adhesive that sticks to the tent fabric.” If this happens, be sure to use a residue-removal product that will not harm the tent.

Anchor Industries uses an adhesive printed decal that doesn’t leave residue on the tents. “These are best for frame tents and clearspan structures,” Hoesli advises. “Decals are difficult to use with tension high-peak tents because of the high levels of stress on the fabric due to tensioning.”

Staying ahead of the game

Tent companies have several options to educate themselves on graphics so they can turn around and sell the idea to their clients. One is to attend industry trade shows, training events and seminars. Another is to understand the hot markets for tent graphics usage. “The sporting industry appears to be adapting quickly to using printed tents for team spirit and as a way to gain new revenue through corporate sponsorships of VIP tents, beer gardens and picnic areas,” Hoesli notes.

The corporate and promotional market is another one to watch. “Mainstream companies such as Harley-Davidson, for races and rallies, and AT&T, for store use and outdoor exposure, as well as auto dealerships, see the value of tent branding,” Lapping says.

In addition, Vieille sees the street market industry becoming larger. “Event and market organizers want to offer visitors fun in coming to see what street vendors promote,” he says. “Imagine a market where every vendor has his own printed tent and accessories about his skills or profession.”

Despite a stalled economy, professionals in the tent and event industry remain optimistic about the opportunities that graphically printed structures can produce. “We currently have a number of tent rental customers who have seen the profitability of selling printed tents and continue to increase their purchase of these unique tents,” Hoesli says.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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