Custom build exhibition stands are the culmination of weeks of work. Here’s the story of a 3-day install for such a bespoke stand.

Ignorance is bliss

Begrudgingly, I need to admit that I’m a virgin in the field of custom build exhibition stands. Worse still, I got involved with this project pretty late. I wasn’t there for the rounds of design considerations, the production of the CAD visuals, the detailed plans, the conceptual shifts of direction and last-minute tweaks. I wasn’t there in the workshop as the cabinets and other bespoke structures were designed, crafted and built. I wasn’t even there to help load the 3 luton box vans with hardware, tools, substrate panels, constructed elements, graphics, electricals, a Hairy Bikers grill and a panoply of biscuits.

But maybe my ignorance of the ins and outs of custom builds is actually a good place from which to write about the experience of a 3-day installation. And arriving at Hall 3 of the NEC at lunchtime on the first day of the build, it soon became clear that I would be heavily involved with unloading all this carefully packed equipment. And access to the biscuits was probably somewhat dependent on my ability to do so without breaking, scratching or scuffing any of it.

Facing the labyrinth

The signage at the NEC is truly terrible. I found out where the exhibition hall was by asking someone at the hotel in the middle of this huge complex. But knowing where it was helped very little in actually getting there. For anyone who might find this useful: to get to Hall 3, you need to go past the East 5 car park up to the southern car parks, then go left in order to skirt round the back of them, emerging at a small ticket booth in the middle of one of them, manned by someone who expects you to know where you’re going and is resultantly rather reluctant to offer anything resembling useful information. Like pointing, for example.

Get past this Brummiest of hurdles, and you get to a sign which points left to ‘All Halls’. The halls are all to your right. Figures.

Under a blood red sky

‘Hall’ is a word with overtones of both elegance and grandeur, rooted as it is in edifices of historical magnificence. The NEC’s halls are certainly magnificent in size, but they look disappointingly like someone has accidentally dropped several aircraft hangars directly onto Oppenheimer’s bunker. Think substance, not style.

Today, these monolithic monstrosities were bathed in an eerie wash of red sunlight, which seemed either a weak attempt to somehow beautify them, or possibly the immediate aftermath of a nearby nuclear explosion. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s by no means the weirdest thing I’ve seen in Birmingham; I grew up here.

Starting from scratch

In the centre of Hall 3, I stand on a square expanse of plastic-sheeted carpet. There is a fence around one corner and a large wooden frame has been mounted on the far side. Scanning the hall, it’s the same story everywhere. To an inexperienced observer like myself, there’s nothing about these sparse geometric shapes that seems particularly likely to transform into spectacular custom build exhibition stands in less than three days.

But the Rounded Edge project is in good hands.

I would be the fifth member of the build team. The other four are custom build stalwarts, supremely experienced in the exhibition industry, involved with the project from day 1. They know exactly what needs doing (and why and how and when). The design is clear, the planning is fully realised, the materials and equipment have been pre-prepared as much as possible back at base, and they now sit in the vans, carefully packed so they come out in roughly the order that they’re required. Working within these parameters is highly reassuring.

Despite its size and scope, nothing about this build is particularly new to my teammates, other than the known unknowables such as the unpredictable availability of the on-site sparkies, the amount of space to work in around the fringes of the exhibition stand (and the friendliness of the ‘neighbours’), whether or not Chris might leave any of the biscuits for anyone else.

In fact, looking around at the hundreds of hi-vis clad people beavering away across the expanse of this vast hall, it’s clear that despite the physical nature of this work, this is not a young man’s game. There is a craft to this, where experience trumps enthusiasm or mere vigour. It doesn’t seem to make people better singers though, despite the lofty acoustics of a large space.

Trolley dash

For me, day 1 of the build entails endless trips to and from the vans in the car park around 300 metres from the build site. After each trolley is loaded, the van’s tail lifter must be closed and locked because security is a bit of an issue. It’s almost fun the first few times. By the fortieth trip, not so much.

My trolley-loads bring a drip-feed of equipment to the craftsmen on-site, which they sort, position, prepare, paint, sand, saw, trim and cut. There’s no point polishing or dusting anything yet; the paint will have more coats and there will be more sawdust flying around until fairly late on.

Once more unto the breach

On the morning of day 2, we drive the vans through rush-hour Birmingham traffic back to the hall. We’ve had a decent night’s sleep at a Premier Inn, and our bellies are suitably furnished with the requisite Full English breakfast. Morale is high, and we step purposefully back into battle.

Somewhat exhausted (but reluctant to admit it) by the midpoint of the day, I sit on a rolled up carpet with a pint of tea and try to assess progress. Most of the electrical work is done, the main structural elements are in place and much of the wood-cutting and painting is finished. But the stand is still a country mile from completion.

I tentatively ask Stuart how it’s going, because I genuinely can’t tell (beyond the knowledge that the stuff is all there, none of it is broken, and nobody looks panicked). He tells me this has been a smooth build and recounts the occasion last year when a fully laden van was stolen on the first day of the build (hence the security concern, I suppose). But that’s another story.

As this morning’s Full English releases the last of its protein-laden energy and some ham and cheese toasties, lovingly-prepared on the Hairy Bikers grill, take on that important baton, the momentum continues to build… and so do we. Between 9am and 7.30pm, these guys put in quite a shift. No breaks, no let-up in the speed or efficiency of their output.

Time warp

The main problem here is that time is passing in a genuinely bizarre way. Make the mistake of glancing at your watch and you’ll notice another hour has disappeared. Time has the potential to run away from you. Everyone feels it. Some of the other build teams are apparently having a slightly less smooth experience.

The last hour gets the big cabinets into position. The TVs are all on and working. Lighting is nearly there. Suddenly it begins to feel possible. We might have continued a while had the hall not been closed for the night.

Coming together

Day 3 is a period of consolidation. The team from Acteon arrive with all their specialist dental equipment, with its own electrical and structural challenges, and obviously a specific requirement for its layout. Being ready for their arrival is the difference between being able to be helpful to them (they are, after all, the exhibitors) and getting in their way. This seems an extremely basic and essential part of the service. There are panels still to get a second or third coat of paint, but none of them are in the way. Even this demands careful organisation.

We’ve mentioned Acteon and their amazing Xmind Trium in a previous post (see Small voxels, huge lightbox), and it’s nice to finally see this dental beast in the flesh, so to speak. I am reliably informed they’re not allowed to actually fire it up in the hall (something about rogue X-rays makes event organisers slightly twitchy).

Custom build exhibition stands: summary

Sadly, I leave just a few hours before completion of the stand (the final image above was supplied by Acteon themselves). But I have learned a few things along the way, which I will attempt to summarise with a good old-fashioned bullet list:

      • Installing custom build exhibition stands is punishingly hard work for a pen pusher like me
      • It’s also very specialist work, benefitting hugely from the experience and craft of your build team
      • Remember you’re there to realise your client’s vision – it’s their exhibition stand, their investment, their baby
      • Planning and organisation is key, since time is a limited resource
      • If you don’t know what you’re doing when you get there, forget it
      • Teamwork and flexibility are also vital, to do what needs doing at the right time
      • Good trolleys are an essential investment
      • Take a camera – this is important work, and should be documented (and if you’re taking a photo, you’re not lifting anything heavy for several seconds)
      • Electricians believe themselves royalty
      • The NEC’s signage is slightly ridiculous, like a labyrinth anxious to remain unsolved
      • Everything you thought you knew about calories needs to be reversed whilst installing custom build exhibition stands
      • Without biscuits, all is lost

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