A Carnival of Wide-Format Printing
The term “fair” or “festival” can mean a lot of things, depending on who you ask. It can mean a small community event held on Main Street, with local craftspeople getting the opportunity to show off and sell their art. It can mean an event with carnival rides and fried food as far as the eye can see. It can mean massive gatherings of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — to hear favorite bands. Or it could be anything in between. The one thing the entire spectrum of fairs and festivals has in common is that they all require print.
As wide-format technologies have improved, the ability to create vibrant, durable graphics that adhere to almost any space has been a boon for the fair and festival space, notes Dave Prezzano, VP and GM, Graphics Solutions Business for the Americas, HP Inc. “With the increase in capabilities offered through wide-format print technology, branding is now found throughout festivals and events using all types of media, including soft signage, PSA vinyl, and rigid. With the versatility of today’s technology, there are more opportunities than ever to sell branded spaces — all surfaces are blank canvases.”
In practice, Cole Canedy, the COO for Nonstop Signs, says that the type of print work requested by these events can vary widely. With offices in both San Diego and Los Angeles, Calif., the shop works with clients that range from food and beer celebrations to jewelry fairs and chili cookoffs. “We’ve done printing from large-scale banners, fabrics, and wall murals to custom displays,” he notes. “It’s a huge array of things we’ve done for fairs. A lot of people have been doing floor and concrete graphics lately, with a significant amount for directional purposes.”
He says that large displays that seek to really brand the space, making it stand out as a unique event, have also been very popular with this vertical.
Those large installations — which any wide-format shop can easily produce with the equipment already on hand — is the trend Olle Lindqvist, president of Big Image Systems, based in Sweden with offices in the U.S. and Europe, is also following. “We are focused on much larger prints,” he says, “anything from a 40x60-ft. piece to 160 ft. It’s a strong niche market we can do well in.”
For most wide-format shops, fairs and festivals will be an easy vertical to target. There is no need to invest in any specialty equipment — on the print or finishing sides — and most shops will even have the right substrates on hand to produce whatever applications are called for. And with thousands of events taking place across the entire country nearly every weekend, there are plenty of potential customers to go around. However, there is one other element that plays into whether or not a shop can have a successful fair and festival printing business: time.
Time to Shine
When it comes to printing work for fairs and festivals — large, medium, or small — time is the single biggest factor that determines whether or not the job was a success. It can determine whether the shop will keep the business when the next event comes around or if a competitor will earn the right to try instead.
That challenge is something Andre Neumann, president, and owner of Santa Barbara Signs & Graphics in Santa Barbara, Calif., has experienced firsthand while producing the signage for the Old Spanish Days Fiesta for more than 15 years.
“We would have one to two days to do all the event signage,” he notes, “and I would sometimes sleep next to the printer to make sure it didn’t run out of ink or have a head strike.” Eventually, he invested in a second printer to allow him to work faster, with the shop now running two Roland wide-format printers, as well as an HP to give them the most flexibility when it comes to producing a range of graphics on a tight deadline.
In fact, he says just last year he had to produce everything for the event in a single day, and one piece was an 8x8-ft. dye-sublimation fabric backdrop that he didn’t have a large enough machine to handle. He had just an hour and a half to figure out how to get it done and ended up splitting the two sides of the print, running them in tandem on two different machines, and then hemming them together.
“Then we went back to the site and set it all up. Nowadays, everyone has an Amazon mentality of wanting it right away,” he says.
One reason for the last-minute nature of fair and festival work, says Tammi Johnson, business development manager for 3M Commercial Solutions Division, is that even for the events planned long in advance — such as major sporting events with celebrations that can span an entire city — there are always going to be last-minute adjustments.
“Something always comes up at the last minute,” she says. “Someone forgot something, or there is a new concept, or they want to add something. Maybe they have to take it to the city for approvals or permits,” which in turn, can lead to changes, she points out.
“When working with festivals and events, PSPs (print service providers) must be prepared for rush jobs, numerous job changes, and last-minute requests,” Prezzano explains. “During festivals, new requirements will arise, so be prepared to staff for longer shifts and stock up on medias and inks to meet these requests. A festival organizer is counting on their PSP to deliver; deliver accurately and in a timely manner.”
For Nonstop Signs’ Canedy, the ability to meet these tight deadlines is something he takes pride in, noting, “we make it happen.” Today’s fair and festival customer, he says, is always trying to rush the work at the very end, ensuring the graphics reflect the latest sponsors, vendors, layout, or other factors. While he does note that many do try to get the artwork to the shop with as much time as possible, his experience is similar to Johnson’s — there are always going to be last-minute changes.
Other Factors to Consider
While time is certainly one of the biggest challenges for wide-format printers looking to break into the fair and festival vertical, it isn’t the only one.
Installation services, in particular, can be an attractive service for stressed-out event organizers looking to streamline the details and execute the festivities seamlessly. “A lot of times [installation services] go hand-in-hand with these events,” Canedy says. “We have to send installers on multiple days to put up the graphics, and at times we are also taking them down, depending on the budget.”
This is especially true when the graphics are going up onto surfaces that can’t be damaged when being removed, such as the sides of buildings. In those cases, having a team of professional installers who can handle the sometimes difficult or tricky work is a great value-added service wide-format shops can use to position themselves as event partners, rather than simply vendors.
Versatility is another piece that Johnson notes will serve a wide-format shop well when breaking into this vertical. “Maybe have printers that specialize in smaller format, large-format, and high-volume; have a variety of equipment [the shops] can use,” she notes. “Also make sure to have a variety of materials that will span from short term to longer term, are durable and can be used on multiple surfaces to create different effects.”
That versatility, she says, will allow a shop to offer event organizers more than just banners or wayfinding signage. In areas with a robust transit system, for example, a shop could offer graphics that can go in metro stations or on buses to help promote the event. Or perhaps the shop and the event partner with local Uber drivers using targeted vehicle wraps. Graphics inside parking garages is another option, both before the event to alert visitors to the time and place, but also during the event, to serve as directional pieces to ensure no one has trouble finding the event, no matter where they are coming from. Creative, versatile shops that can offer print options the organizers might not have even known to ask for — but that will help them improve the overall success of the event — is an easy service to work into a wide-format printer’s portfolio.
Neumann points out that another service that can help make fair and festival printing more successful is having someone on staff who is proficient in graphic design. He notes that it isn’t unusual to receive graphics, logos or other pieces of art sourced from the internet, or items that are otherwise too low-resolution to output at larger sizes. “You have to make sure the graphics will output correctly,” he says. “That was a tip I learned when I first started.” He gives one example of receiving the sponsor files at 4:30 in the afternoon from the client, only to discover they were all 196k PNG files — and the finished pieces were going to be 12- to 14-ft. tall. “I tried to source better versions, and then I learned to do the tracing in Illustrator to convert them to vector. I spent so much time recreating the graphics — but it is important to be proficient there.”
Most customers don’t know — or care — about high-resolution versus low, or how that impacts the final printed product. They simply want the final piece to look great. Neumann notes that shops that can’t fix those issues and get the work out the door on time will lose the job and suffer a hit to their reputation — but those who can work proverbial miracles will earn loyal customers who will bring more jobs in the future.
Finally, Lindqvist notes another challenge that many shops just don’t consider is the customer service side of the business.
“We invested enormous time into customer service,” he says, including ensuring clients can easily track where their jobs are in the production cycle, when they were shipped (Big Image Systems does all of its printing from its overseas locations) and when the customer can expect the pieces to arrive. But that degree of highly personalized service is one reason, he believes, that his company has found success even with the additional challenge of shipping thrown in. “People doubted they would get that from us, and we set a goal that we will be better than any [other] company, [and] would provide better service. Ultimately, I think that is what brings the business success.”
Fairs and festivals are a vertical any wide-format shop can easily target as a way to diversify the customer base and bring in more work, without needing costly or time-consuming equipment or software upgrades, or adding new people to the staff. As long as a shop is prepared to meet tight deadlines with sometimes challenging artwork or projects, this can be a very rewarding and profitable business opportunity.