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Trade Shows a Snap with Plywood

For most business to business operations, trade shows are an indispensable marketing tool. Customers like them because they offer an opportunity to shop competitive vendors in one place. For exhibitors, differentiating themselves from the competition is crucial because they have only five seconds to make a good impression. Walk any trade show floor and you’ll notice more sophisticated booths and interactive displays. In fact, trade shows are an estimated $100 billion a year industry in the United States alone. And at the heart of these temporary epicenters of commerce is imported plywood.



Bev Gray, President and CEO, Exhibit Edge Inc.

“It is a really neat industry because you start with imported plywood and then you can add all sorts of things: laminates, graphics, carpet, specialty lighting, metal, plexi and so on. It is very creative.”

Bev Gray, President and CEO, Exhibit Edge Inc.


Our job is to help the client do it right,” says Bev Gray, president and CEO of Exhibit Edge Inc. Most businesses that benefit from having a presence at trade shows do not have the in-house capabilities to design, build, store, ship and install exhibits, a process that must essentially be run in reverse at the end of a show. Companies like Exhibit Edge have evolved to offer turnkey trade show solutions. Bev Gray, along with husband Mike Gray, vice president of sales, use their combined 48 years of experience in exhibit design, packaging and logistics to make sure their clients’ trade shows go smoothly.

Designing Beyond Pipe and Drape

“In the exhibit industry everything is designed and built to be installed, dismantled and stored for use another day,” says Mike Gray. “So the techniques for building exhibits are much different than building furniture or permanent installations.” Exhibits are made to go together and come apart easily using nuts and bolts as opposed to nails. There are three main types of exhibits: small pop-up displays, modular lightweight hybrids that use more contemporary materials like aluminum extrusion and fabrics, and then larger custom displays for maximum impact.

“Exotic plywood serves our purposes very well on the custom side. We use it instead of the MDF or MDO that is often specified in the building industry,” says Mike Gray. Meranti/lauan (Shorea spp.) works great in custom work, shelving, kiosks, or counters. Exotic plywood is readily available and easy to machine. Lauan is as lightweight and durable as it comes. Gray continues, “We use a lot of 3/16-inch and 1/4-inch lauan plywood when we’re doing conference rooms and back wall panels because of its impressive strength-to-weight ratio.”

Everything used in the construction of trade show displays is chosen for specific performance characteristics. Lauan is the material of choice to frame out custom exhibit booths because the smooth and consistent grain pattern on the surfaces allow it to be finished with a variety of materials for a very high-end appeal.

Paul Vella, president of Atlantic Plywood Corporation, a leading wholesale supplier of hardwood plywood and panel products that services the trade show industry, among others adds, “Exhibit booth manufacturers love the thinner plywood. It keeps the booth lightweight without limiting the designer’s imagination. Meranti is easy to bend and machine, making it the ideal ‘skin’ for displays.”

“It is a really neat industry because you start with imported plywood and then you can add all sorts of things: laminates, graphics, carpet, specialty lighting, metal, plexi and so on. It is very creative. And because exhibit halls still use pipe and drape walls up and down every aisle, displays need to be exciting to stand out from the uniform drab drapery,” says Bev Gray.

“We stock more plywood than any other type of wood,” notes Mike Gray. “If we are doing intricate work for drawers, slides or smaller items, we favor half-inch Baltic birch (Betula spp.) plywood because it has a great grain structure, and the thinner plies make it quite strong. The lack of voids make Baltic birch very solid, and it stays very straight.”

Although the past years have been tough for trade shows in general, the industry is making a comeback. The 2011 Exhibitor Economic Outlook Survey confirms that business is picking up with 47% of trade show exhibitors saying they definitely plan to, or are thinking of replacing their exhibit booth. That’s good news for companies like Exhibit Edge and other trade show firms.

As businesses pull themselves out of the recession, they’re also revisiting their marketing strategies and budgets for trade shows. Exhibit booth turnover used to be every four years, but now companies are replacing exhibits every five to seven years on average. “Our staff is very creative in making the same exhibit look different for show attendees, and for the company. We are doing more refurbishments and modifications to existing exhibits,” comments Bev Gray, adding, “It’s one main reason we always stock at least two main types and species of plywood: ¾-inch B-C grade and ½-inch Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and lauan in a variety of thicknesses.”

Booth design isn’t the only job for plywood at trade shows. Crate design is as important as the exhibits themselves, and plywood is up to the task.

Have Plywood, Will Travel

Carefully designed plywood crates are as important to a successful trade show display as the exhibit itself.

To get a trade show display from one place to another without damage requires very careful preparation. Once an exhibit arrives at the trade show floor, the display needs to be installed, but also designed for easy dismantling. “Your trade show team has to be able to handle the individual components and assemble them on site. Pieces need to be able to go together easily, and come apart easily with as little wear and tear as possible,” says Mike Gray.

Large displays are shipped all over the world, so minimizing the weight of an exhibit is critical. Unnecessary weight translates to unnecessary cost. “Trade show companies and manufacturers are smart in their designs, the materials used, and even how exhibits are shipped. If you ever see a truck unload exhibits at a show site, all the crates are lined up inside, eight to ten feet high, like lockers. It’s become standard because it’s a more efficient way to ship exhibits. And booth designers are very aware of total costs,” comments Vella.

“Everything from the feet that go on the crates to the slats that hold them together is made out of pure plywood. Not only is plywood less expensive for crating than lumber, it is also lighter than products like MDFand less brittle. Plus it is ISPM compliant so it won’t get hung up in customs,” adds Mike Gray. Crate sides are often made of a B-C grade ¼ to ½ -inch sanded fir, but thicker boards of exotic plywood are generally used to strengthen the bottom and back of the crate.

Companies like Exhibit Edge build crates completely from plywood because the material is so durable, it can withstand minor damage from transit. “If something like a forklift blade hits the crate it may break off a thin layer, but it won’t break off a whole chunk like MDF, or an entire piece like a two by four,” says Mike Gray.

Plywood is the perfect trade show partner. It is effective, impressive, reliable, and it has the strength to stand on show floors for hours without complaint. There is high energy on the floor, but once the show is over, you pack up the exhibit, and go somewhere else in a snap.

Copyright© 2011 by the International Wood Products Association. Published by Bedford Falls Communications, Inc. and circulated to an audience of 20,000 architects, designers, distributors, manufacturers, and users of imported wood products in North Americ

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