Focus on service: how consistency, reliability and innovation in exhibition logistics have opened doors for Rounded Edge Studio.

Doing it right

Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford’s words above can be interpreted as something specific to products (in this case cars) like ‘the quality of the body, chassis or engine is equally important, irrespective of whether the customer sees it’.

Or Ford might have been talking about the manufacturing process itself, whereby maintenance of the quality and consistency of output is largely an internal consideration, but which ultimately impacts the consumer just the same.

But an equally useful interpretation is found by applying his words to the importance of a service-provider’s attitude to quality; that in an aspirational sense, trying to get every detail right, whether or not you’re with the client at the time, satisfies all but the fussiest. This attitude assumes that you think and act as though you are the client, that you remain distinct from them only through your specialism.

With this ‘doing it right’ idea of service provision comes the burden of responsibility and the requirement of trust. Because if you’re to get things done right and on time, your client needs to know that you understand the brand, the campaign and the brief. When goals are aligned, collaborative and autonomous work need not be treated with differing levels of trust.

Beneath the mask

There are factors in play with service provision that can sometimes mask the fact that you’re trying to ‘do it right’. These might be things like utter incompetence, misunderstandings, being let down by a third party, or that oldest of enemies, time. With the exception of incompetence (for which we know of no remedy), these barriers can all be mitigated or avoided altogether through planning and clarity of communication.

Doing it right gets easier with experience, although experience can of course lead to the illusion of competence. If competence is illusory, it’s not ‘doing it right’, it’s more like ‘getting away with it occasionally’. Fortunately, lack of experience usually exposes itself quickly, so the charlatans in our industry tend not to stay in business for long.

We always think of our exhibition stands (and, by extension, our exhibition services) as a swan; you see the beauty and grace of the bird on the water, but you don’t need to be constantly reminded of the feet flapping away underneath. This may seem like subterfuge, but it’s actually just a form of simplification or reassurance. Clients are generally happy to hear how you solved their problems, but less interested in how you solved your own.

Taking care of business

So one aspect of great service, particularly in the area of logistics, is about taking care of things specifically so clients don’t have to worry about them. Our university clients know, for example, that their prospectuses (which might weigh 900kg) will be at the show on time and in perfect condition.

Taking care of things, in the other sense, is equally important. Outsourcing logistics leads to less care being taken. This is self-evident every time your Amazon parcel arrives stuffed in the back of someone’s car, or when you see your suitcase being thrown onto a conveyor belt at the airport. And the heavy-lifters you can hire for your exhibition installation are rarely invested in its final condition. This is even more pronounced with the break-down; it’s incredible how much exhibition equipment ends up in landfill.

Caring is also about taking responsibility for your output, especially its consistency. Ensuring that an exhibition stand looks as good at its 45th show as it did at the first is no mean feat. Wear and tear is inevitable. But again, with a ‘doing it right’ attitude, the client needn’t be responsible for managing this. For example, at Rounded Edge, we build each stand in our warehouses every time it returns to base. Nobody asked us to do this. We think it’s the only way to be sure that every component is both present and in good enough condition for the next show. If it’s not, we fix or replace it.

Innovation in service

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.

Tom Peters

An important thing to remember is that experience isn’t everything. Something you did right ten years ago, even with consistency, is not necessarily good enough now. It may not even be right any more.

As industries, environments, technology and expectations evolve over time, so must the services and the approach of those providing them change. A few years ago, online retailers offered 3-day delivery if you were lucky. Now, as consumers, we fully expect a next-day delivery option. Some are even trialling same-day delivery services. As the paradigm shifted, those retailers who didn’t shift with it got left in the dust.

With exhibition logistics, we see evolution as inevitable and desirable, so we’re looking to stay ahead of the curve. Innovation in the industry has traditionally been in the exhibition products or hardware systems available, and more latterly technological aspects of exhibiting like how to collect, organise and exploit data, and how to run a successful social media campaign around the event.

Innovation in logistics services has often been at the bottom of the list. This is partially because to provide exhibition logistics in the first place, a company has to be of a certain size.

But the thing that really stymies innovation is lack of vision. Exhibition suppliers can easily get bogged down in chasing turnover, especially if that’s the only way they can imagine maintaining their current size and standing. But chasing turnover eventually leads to overstretch. Businesses become busy fools; exhausted people firefighting the problems caused by this overstretch. This is not a good incubator of excellence in logistics, let alone innovation.

An innovative approach

A true innovator tries to avoid overstretching. They adopt an approach of doing fewer things, but doing them very well. It’s a sustainable model because it allows a supplier to be more choosy; about with whom they work, about which jobs they take on, about the resources they use and so on. To use a football analogy (sorry about this), the innovator is the midfield playmaker, creative enough and confident enough in their own ability to look up and spot the decisive pass.

An innovator ring-fences time for their innovations; product development, systems development, staff training, workflow refinement. In other words, taking the time to look up and spot the route to improvement, taking that path, then having the courage to review previous decisions and change direction again. Depending on your outlook, you either view this as short-term business risk or essential long-term planning.

As far as we’re concerned, innovation needn’t be revolutionary. It’s about refinement and improvement. It’s about remembering not to rest on one’s laurels. It’s about insisting on leaving space for the cultivation of ideas, however busy we find ourselves.

As an exhibition logistics supplier, we are only as good as our last job. We are judged on our failures as much as our successes, and a client’s memory can sometimes be very short. This drives us to a mindset and a culture of doing it right every time. It creates a virtuous circle; the need for consistency drives quality, quality drives improvement, improvement drives consistency.

We’re constantly looking for ways to make those incremental improvements, such as implementing software for smart picking in the warehouse and live inventory information for each client’s pool of managed stock. This allows us to be more proactive and efficient in our workflows.

But the main tactic employed for refinement is a process of intelligent reflection, whereby we hold regular debriefings after each show to work out what went well, what could be improved and what can be streamlined. This allows us to maximise efficiency and minimise costs under ever-increasing pressure from health and safety parameters and decreasing build windows, whilst still providing the client with a stand that goes beyond their expectations.

Managing change

Change is often feared because people see it as costly and disruptive. Big changes with big gaps between are undeniably scary. But not changing is essentially stagnation, the cost of which can be commercially fatal. Embracing incremental change and continual improvement at a cultural level is the only way to make it feel less disruptive.

So being selective increases control over one’s future, permitting the agility to cope with environmental changes beyond one’s control. It therefore is commercial because it allows competitiveness to be maintained indefinitely. But it also fosters loyalty among clients and employees alike, and loyalty brings its own commercial advantages.

Accepting the inevitability of change is a mindset that’s difficult to impose in an established corporate culture. In many ways, larger organisations with their established structures, workflows and procedures find it most difficult of all. Like a huge container ship, trying to turn quickly will probably result in loss of cargo and possibly even capsize. Smaller firms definitely have the advantage when it comes to agility.

Exhibition logistics: an insight

Here we explore some of the factors that any exhibition logistics supplier must consider, and give an insight into the Rounded Edge Studio approach.

The ability to provide logistics is a combination of physical and geographical location, storage space, organisational competence, personnel and resource flexibility that the smallest firms simply can’t muster. The consequence of this is that exhibition suppliers often have no choice but to outsource this work whether they like it or not.

Size and time factors

Small exhibition stands are often sold as DIY or self-build equipment anyway, but what if a client wants to build the same small stand fifty times? Are they really going to manage that themselves? If not, to whom should they entrust the logistics for those fifty shows? A courier? Where are they going to store it?

Medium-sized exhibition stands will normally involve much more hardware than small ones, even if the outer display equipment is the same type; flooring, counters, accessories, media, lighting, literature and so on. They need a dedicated van, probably with a tail-lift. They also need at least two people to load and unload that van. That’s before you’ve even started building the stand.

The larger the stand, the more resource is required. But also, more time. For the build to be a success, the van needs to be loaded with care. The items needed last (like literature) must be loaded into the van first. Anything fragile needs to be protected with suitable wrappings, but also by thoughtful placement. Blankets and bubble wrap separate anything that will bump together in transit. Heavy items are strapped to the walls.

Furthermore, most exhibition installs have a limited time window. It often becomes essential to partially build a stand before loading it into the van. That’s why we love the potential of our new aluminium profile system, whereby modular elements can ship fully or partially constructed. That means that even larger stands can then be built much quicker when we get to the show. But again, organising the elements in the vans is no easy task, sometimes becoming a Tetris puzzle for our warehouse staff.

Taking care

The key factor in all this is people. The people carrying out this work need to understand that the consequences of doing a poor job are damage to equipment and, ultimately, to reputation too. That’s why they need to care. It’s just like the removal firm you entrust to move your precious possessions when you move house. Breakage or damage insurance isn’t enough to placate someone who just lost a family heirloom. And for us, it’s not enough to compensate for an inferior exhibition stand. That’s why it’s not enough to outsource the work to couriers.

Storage needs to be safe, secure, environmentally controlled and, more than anything else, organised. Printed graphic panels cannot remain pristine in damp environments. Without proper warehouse shelving, loading bays, forklifts and people invested in doing it right when no one is looking, storage can quickly turn into a chaotic enterprise. Organising all this requires forethought, dedication and a requisite technological solution.

Location, location , location

A location with good road links is also an important factor in providing exhibition logistics. Here in Skipton, we are able to service all the main metropolitan areas of the UK. Yes, it’s easier for us to do a show in the north of England, but unlike many others, we can as easily be in Aberdeen or Exeter thanks to our central location. It enables UK-wide coverage.

Owning a fleet of vans is one way an exhibition supplier can tackle the transport and delivery requirements of this endeavour. But that constitutes a huge expense in terms of outlay, insurance, tax and maintenance, as well as the extra space required to park the fleet securely.

Were the exhibition industry less seasonal, owning a fleet might be a better solution, but with its inherent peaks and troughs, this would lead to vehicles being idle for a significant chunk of each year. To mitigate against this, Rounded Edge Studio choose the rental option. Our proximity to Skipton Self Drive (a highly reputable and reliable van hire firm) was part of our decision to locate where we did.

Exhibition logistics: the payoff

Putting all the pieces of a logistics puzzle together in order to provide that as a service has an enormous payoff in terms of what we can offer an exhibition client.

Firstly, reliability becomes something that is firmly within your control. If you trade on your service levels as we do, your reputation for reliability is of paramount importance. In the exhibition game, each show is a hugely expensive once-only event, in which the exhibitors expose themselves to potential clients and competitors alike. It’s a vulnerable place to be if you think about it. The supplier can’t afford to be anything but reliable, so outsourcing logistics is a big risk.

Secondly, providing logistics is often a huge relief to clients who don’t want the hassle of organising it themselves. That’s not a lazy standpoint to have for several reasons. Some companies don’t have the resource to do it. Some don’t have the experience. Some recognise that trying to do it themselves would lead to an inferior stand. But irrespective of all this, exhibitors usually prefer to focus their efforts on the marketing initiative itself. By freeing up their time, we can really add value to their project. Clients usually recognise this and repeat business is usually the end result.

Clients who benefit most from a logistics service are those doing multiple shows like graduate careers fairs. These exhibitions travel around the country to get their message to different locations. The message (and therefore the exhibition stand) is usually a fixed or global one, so it’s often a case of treating the stand equipment as a kit, maintaining it and installing it reliably at all the shows.

But venues are not all the same, in size or prestige, so it is necessary to have variations of the client’s kit befitting those variations. This might just be more panels for a roller banner or portable display system. But that means designing the graphic panels to work in different configurations, and ensuring the right ones from this pool get used at the various venues. In some cases, different hardware systems would be used, particularly at a huge exhibition hall like the NEC.

Without a quality logistics service, the likelihood of error with all these variations in play is high. Having done this for several years now, we know that organising logistics for a season of diverse events is extremely difficult. And we love that, because it’s clear to us that it’s not something most of our competitors could do even if they wanted to. So the payoff for us here is differentiation; the creation of a precious unique selling point.

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