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Outdoor trade shows offer opportunities and challenges for tenting

Features | August 1, 2018 | By:

For the U.K.-based construction equipment manufacturer JCB, Condit provided a structure manufactured in the United Kingdom by Worldwide Structures and used at CONEXPO-CON/AGG. Measuring approximately 18 by 24 meters, with two full stories and a third-story viewing deck, the structure was installed on an asphalt parking lot with concrete anchors and epoxy, and included outdoor carpet, industrial deck tiles and painted surfaces. Photo courtesy of Diamond Events & Tents.

Semiconductors and dentistry tools fit nicely on a table in an exhibit hall—cranes and airplanes not so much. That’s why makers and sellers of big and heavy products ply their goods at outdoor industrial showcases. Even if a convention center can accommodate large products for a trade show, exhibitors won’t be allowed to run them inside for demonstration purposes, so outdoor areas serve as an extension of the indoor component.

“The trade show is a good business for us,” says Jeff McInnes, North America sales manager for HTS Clearspan Structure Systems of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla. Literally big opportunities, he notes, include air shows. “They are geared toward people who run FBOs [Fixed Base Operators] and sell personal aircraft.

“We don’t do a whole-event build-out,” he continues. “We do something specific for customers who want our product. For example, we did a structure for Cessna that they took to the [EAA AirVenture] Oshkosh fly-in in Wisconsin.”

HTS Clearspan Structure Systems, with global headquarters in Germany, won the 2017 IFAI Award of Excellence for a 50-by-100-foot structure with an eave height of 20 feet. Link-Belt Cranes of Lexington, Ky., used it at Las Vegas’ CONEXPO-CON/AGG, which showcases heavy construction equipment.

“A lot of high-dollar purchasing goes on at that show,” McInnes says. That explains why outdoor trade-show exhibitors are particularly interested in temporary structures—not only to cover products that won’t fit through the doors of an exhibition hall (in fact, they may leave their products under open sky), but also for component parts, presentations and ever-so-critical hospitality.

“People who come to trade shows are spending tremendous amounts of money. You want them to be comfortable,” says Mandy Glenwright, senior project manager, structures and special events of Condit, whose clients have exhibited at the World of Concrete, MINExpo® International and CONEXPO-CON/AGG. “We do an installation for National Trench Safety of Houston, Texas. The exhibit comprises a perimeter of industrial equipment, and our structure is a 16-by-16-foot box for hospitality where they set up a bar and audiovisuals.”

An expanse of 2.6 million square feet of land lends itself to the exhibition of agricultural equipment, as evidenced by the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif. As the trade show’s exposition services contractor, Diamond Events & Tents is charged with not only providing tent structures, but also project management, including logistics. Photo courtesy of Diamond Events & Tents.

“Since the equipment will be out in sun or rain, [manufacturers] want someplace protected to sit down and close the sale. They want a nice seating area with a table,” says Mark Clawson, president of Diamond Events & Tents, which has a long-term contract to supply tent structures and exposition services for the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Diamond Events & Tents has provided tenting services to association-based and consumer-focused trade shows for 20 years. In 2017, the company erected 280,000 square feet of clearspan structures ranging in size from 25 to 40 meters in width, plus 150 small tents on a blank field for the World Ag Expo.

“There was a grape-picking machine—a $500,000 machine at least. Like the large tractors and implements, it would never fit in an exhibit hall,” Clawson notes.

“We have done trade shows where there were a quarter-million square feet of structure, with all the event services handled by an adjacent facility, and trade shows with that much structure and the need for tents that can house all of the ancillary services. A real consideration is in providing quality structures for the other services that match the structure for the trade show itself. It’s an important part of the equation, because customers notice when there is a step down in quality.”

There you go

Public-festival tents are mainly for shade only. Trade-show tents tend to be larger and are done up with elaborate decor, says Bobby Braun, owner and national sales manager of Braun Events Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill. Business-minded trade shows primarily take place during the day, whereas fun-minded festivals tend to run longer hours, even into the night, he notes.

Braun points to IFAI’s Tent Expo as a prime model of using tents for different purposes: registration, exhibit booths, hospitality, etc.

“You have to look at the show to decide what they need. Some are all outside displays—for example, RV, boat and tent shows,” he says. “Logistics can be hard, since most of those do not have an actual booth space. Some have large displays outside and then smaller booth spaces indoors or under a tent. The larger the display, the more difficult it may be to create traffic flow, supply power to a space, and/or keep from blocking other vendors.”

“A special consideration for outdoor trade shows is inquiring and knowing about anchoring,” McInnes says. “Some locations may not want you to stake into the ground or have areas you can’t stake. With an air show, for example, they’re not going to let you anchor into the tarmac or runway, but there may be a grassy area you can anchor into. Site selection isn’t just saying, ‘This is a great spot. I want space 115.’ You need to inquire if space 115 will allow you to stake, because staking is easier than ballasting.”

The nature of the site is hugely important, but so is the inside layout. “We have transitioned from curved to A-frame tents so that you don’t have beams hitting exhibit-back drapery,” Clawson says.

It makes sense to display farm equipment in the environment in which it will be used, which is outdoors. The World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., includes an arena for equipment demonstrations, as well as structures for a range of uses, including speakers’ presentations and socializing. “All the functions typically handled by the convention center at a typical trade show can be handled in tent structures, says Mark Clawson, president of Diamond Events & Tents, which provided tented structures and other services for the World Ag Expo in 2017 and 2018. Photo courtesy of Diamond Events & Tents.

In many cases, trade-show organizers combine outdoor components with indoor exhibits, locating their events near large convention-center-loving cities such as Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, Anaheim, New York and New Orleans.

However, a show that involved current and potential service providers for General Dynamics’ F-16 took place, for obvious reasons, near an Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. Diamond Events & Tents provided a structure for Lockheed Martin and others to exhibit F-16 components such as its radar system.

Wherever they’re located, trade shows present extended timelines. “For very large events, tents may be up for weeks prior to the event so that all of the logistics can get handled,” Clawson says.

“Most outdoor trade shows run three to five days, but equipment can be out for up to 14 days because of setup and teardown,” Braun concurs. “Planning is usually done one to two years out. Sometimes the show moves from one city to another. If the city is close enough, the same company may be contracted [for tenting].”

Take it slow

Another time-related consideration for trade-show tent suppliers is that they may be working with an advertising, marketing or brand-imaging agency. “You have to be prepared for a long sales cycle, figuring there will be a decent amount of work development and servicing back and forth,” McInnes says.

Surrounded by cranes at the construction industry trade show CONEXPO-CON/AGG, a structure made for Link-Belt Cranes garnered HTS Clearspan Structure Systems a 2017 IFAI Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of HTS Clearspan Structure Systems.

“If a tent company takes on part or all of the role of trade-show contractor, then the level of service and responsibility is high,” Clawson emphasizes. “Providing exhibitor services such as furniture and power requires a whole team of employees and an extensive inventory. We have everything from structures to furniture to HVAC and electrical distribution.

“Large events usually contract for a multiyear period, and we’ve found that establishing good relationships is a key factor,” he continues. “Show organizers need to be comfortable that their event will be handled professionally, and a tenting company needs to know that they will be a long-term partner to commit its resources. For many of these events, the cycles begin years before. There needs to be a lot of communication and coordination, whether it’s with the site or the different personalities that will be involved.

“You have to orchestrate timelines where everybody is in the loop. If we are working with an event-service contractor, they will set up the timeline and make requests. If we are asked to be the contractor, then we talk with the show promoter to put that timeline together. You have to help orchestrate the entire project—and that includes moving large equipment.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

"Identifying one individual as the point person saves a lot of time. Make a schedule for site visits, delivery and vendor move-in and move-out and try to keep with it as much as possible."

Bobby Braun, Braun Events Inc.

"Planning is crucial. If you can, negotiate for early build-out. Ask if you can come in two days early. They may say, ‘OK, but you have to pay a fee.’ Sometimes it is worth it. Also, figure out how this flower is going to blossom and where you are positioned. You can’t build something that gets in the way of the thing behind it."

Jeff McInnes, HTS Clearspan Structure Systems

"Always view yourself as a resource to people who have problems to solve. Be conservative in timelines and equipment allocations."

Mark Clawson, Diamond Events & Tents

"In addition to knowing the engineering and anchoring for an outdoor structure, it is imperative to know the requirements of show management."

Mandy Glenwright, Condit

Condit provides individual, customized structures; helps clients outfit them, including branding with graphics, utilities, and interiors; and coordinates logistics. The Denver-based company uses a freight vendor with trade-show expertise.

“It’s a complicated business. It is not just dropping things off,” says Mandy Glenwright, senior project manager, structures and special events. “The types of trucks and flatbeds that can move our size and weight of freight and navigate trade-show marshaling are limited. There will be a ‘marshaling yard’ where you have to wait in line until you can drop off freight at the dock or parking lot. Sometimes it can be overnight. Truck companies are hesitant to be involved in that kind of service.”

Condit further contracts for an “installation and dismantling company that provides local, skilled labor in all major cities across the country,” Glenwright says, adding that Condit sends its own technical supervisors to manage on-site crews.

“We have both brought all the crew and arranged for some locally,” says Bobby Braun, owner and national sales manager of Braun Events Inc. “A local crew may not know your product at all, so you have to plan time for training and oversight. We normally have as many of our crew as possible for setup and then get temp labor for teardown.”

“We never send equipment without our own employees, but our crew leaders and lead installers will sometimes work with unskilled temp laborers,” says Mark Clawson, president of Diamond Events & Tents. “We rely heavily on references.”

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