A Look Back at Trade Show and Exhibit Trends

May 3, 2018

Tom Lemery

Tom Lemery is the founder and former president and CEO of Creatacor, an exhibit design, fabrication and trade show management provider located in Clifton Park, NY. Lemery has more than 40 years of experience in the exhibit industry and has been instrumental in the success and growth of Creatacor in its 30-year history.

Fresh out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP), I joined the Rochester-based Giltspur Exhibits in 1976 when I heard that they needed another pair of hands to join their design department. I knew nothing about the exhibit industry at the time, but dove in, got up to speed and never looked back. My career took me to GE and later inspired me to create Creatacor alongside Russ Percenti.

Design is in my blood and that’s really what a successful exhibit or trade show is about: delivering great design, effectively.

The No. 1 aspect of the industry that has changed the most during my career is clearly technology. Not only in the area of computer-assisted design (CAD) but also in estimating, managing production, computer numerical controls and process machinery. Technological improvements and developments in areas of design software and electronic devices have provided trade show exhibit providers and exhibitors with innovative, experiential ways to communicate their message to prospective customers. Flat screen TVs, touch screens … there are so many improvements to consider.

One segment of our industry that I have experienced the most change with would have to be the graphics production area. When I started in this industry, all graphics were silkscreened on painted hard board and paper photographs were pasted to panels, a process that took weeks and was far from forgiving.

A typo, chip or scratch was a major problem. And if the customer wanted more punch and had the money, plywood light-boxes were fabricated with internal fluorescent lighting and photographic transparencies. Today, with large format and direct-to-printer tech, as well as inexpensive flat screen televisions, graphics can be produced in real time on a multitude of surfaces and materials.

The entire fabric imaging business did not exist 30 years ago and today, almost every state-of-the-art exhibit has some sort of tension fabric imagery. Fabric images are a fraction of the weight of the massive structures which were required to provide the same visual impact decades ago. Their uses are only limited by a designer’s imagination.

Even with such technical advances, some of the everyday trials we face in this industry have very much stayed the same. For instance, I’ve seen very little change with challenges related to working with customers and suppliers.

My approach with both groups has always been to be honest and straight-forward, ensuring a solid understanding of what they expect of me as well as what I can expect of them. It’s a practical approach which saves both time and money and it’s a standby at Creatacor. In addition, although there have been some advances related to efficiency and specialization processes, getting an exhibit from point A to point B still takes time – whether it’s overnight by air or by road.

On the other hand, “response time” has changed significantly, as have customer expectations over the years. Customers want it now and honestly, if you don’t expect that as an exhibit provider, you’d better find another line of work. Technology has allowed response time to become quicker and more efficient over the years.

Design renderings are computer generated, as opposed to the old days when a designer sat at his or her drawing board with a tray full of pencils and felt tip markers while knocking out sketches and renderings by hand, a skill that has fallen by the wayside, I might add. Today, a design presentation can be ready for customer review in a couple of days, even hours, if necessary – a process that used to take weeks.

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