The exhibit industry continues to evolve and is still growing. Each step of the way has been influenced by others to add new flavors. In the early days here in the U.S., we designed and built exhibits. Every exhibit was one of a kind. Today, we design and sell tradeshow and event solutions.
The exhibit structure still plays an important role, but the support services around the structure now play an equal, if not greater, part of our product/service mix. Generating sawdust was the major component that delivered revenue and profit. Over time, exhibit components became a commodity. Now we buy out the parts and assemble to create a structure. We then extend our services to add new sources of income that include storage, program management, installation, show site services, A/V, lighting, furniture, lead management services, live marketing, off-site events and onsite attractions.
During each step of the journey, in the world of tradeshow marketing, someone steps out of the traditional service line to create a new and specific service offering. It takes guts to try something new. Here are just a few people who did just that.
- Fred Kitzing, founder, Kitzing Inc.: Dedicated his company to the proposition that the exhibit was not the attraction at a show. The exhibit only serves to support the attraction.
- Elaine Cohen, founder and CEO, Live Marketing: Specialized in providing people talents for tradeshows.
- Ted Zeigler, founder, Nomadic: Invented one of the first pop-up/portable exhibits.
- Bill Moss, founder, C. William Moss Associates (Moss Inc.): Framed fabric shapes introduced in the ‘60s, and then boomed in the ‘90s.
- Hans Bruder, managing director, Octanorm: Spawned the first network of international partner companies with OSPI.
- Jack McEntee, founder, I&D Inc. (Nth Degree, Inc.): Fostered a strong “service attitude” for U.S. installation labor.
There have been many other exhibit industry entrepreneurs who made a difference in how we conduct our business today. They charged ahead not looking to be unnoticed. Here are a few who I had the pleasure of knowing along the way. Each influenced the other to form new ways of seeing things.
In the early ‘70s, several exhibit companies were making strides to grow their business.
There was a company on the south side of Chicago called Rae Systems, owned by George and Johnnie Furman. Rae Systems developed the concept of a self-contained exhibit – a crate that folded out to be an exhibit. These self paks were not a lightweight solution, but saved big time on labor to install and still looked custom. They also developed predesigned exhibits and sold as a package.
One marketing strategy they used was to go to McCormick Place during a show and take a Polaroid snapshot of exhibits that looked shabby. They would then prepare an unsolicited design sketch, with an order form, and send to the company marketing managers. Sales came rolling in without ever meeting the customer. Bruce Robertson, Carl Hetzel, Gene Wyslick, Herb Mertes and Norb Rogers all worked at Rae Systems and grew new companies.
One of my first jobs was to work for Norb Rogers at Premier Exhibits in Chicago.
After Rae Systems, Premier Exhibits was one of the first exhibit houses that offered custom rentals and had offices in Europe and Asia. This idea was unheard of in those days. Today, everyone does it. Premier offered a single price for an exhibit rental, installation and U.S. show site services. Along the way they forgot to pay the show contractor for drayage services, so many end user clients left them, but the concept still lived on. Premier went out of business and two companies were born – Fritkin & Jones and the Design Agency. Bruce Robertson, owner and founder of Design Agency, boldly named his company to encompass all levels of design services. After 40 years, Design Agency continues to evolve.
Two other employees of Premier, Bill Dixon and myself, went on to join 3D Award Exhibits, which later became Exhibitgroup, owned by the Greyhound Corporation. After Exhibitgroup, Bill Dixon went on to start the new 3D Exhibits that today is one of the leading and largest exhibit companies in Chicago, now led by his partner Gene Faut who carries 3D forward. The lessons learned from their experiences along the way enabled each of these exhibit industry pioneers to apply their beliefs and prosper. I’m sure there are many other entrepreneurs in the U.S. who can add a story to this list.
Each of these industry pioneers, in their own small way, borrowed ideas from each other and formed new ways of seeing things to create who we are as an industry today. Tradeshow marketing entrepreneurs worldwide continue to plant new seeds of thought. Some get watered and grow, some seeds wither away.