I have a couple of confessions to make. First off, I’m a pack rat. I am obsessive about packing everything I could possibly need at a show site. I don’t have the time or inclination during setup to run out and buy cleaning supplies or double-sided tape. My motto is, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Secondly, I’m frugal. I hate paying too much for anything, and the marked-up prices for supplies sold on the show floor are definitely too rich for my budget.
Case in point: I was once charged £27 by my exhibitor-appointed contractor for a “cleaning kit” during pre-show wipedown, which included only a single roll of paper towels and a bottle of £3 spray cleaner. The charge, which was accidentally added to my bill, was later removed since I neither requested nor used the kit.
Because of sky-high markups like that, I always bring my own supplies, make sure my installation-and-dismantle crew knows what supplies I brought, and then audit my bill to make sure I wasn’t charged for anything I didn’t order or use. In addition to markups, general contractors and I&D contractors often charge you for a minimum percentage of materials. For example, you may have to pay for a minimum of half a roll of stretch wrap even if you only use a quarter of a roll. Or you may be charged for a minimum of 100 feet of strapping when you only used 25 feet. To avoid these material minimums and marked-up charges, I’ve assembled an arsenal of packing materials, tools, cleaners, and comfort items that go with me to every show. Here are a few of my favorites.
Packing Materials and Adhesives D Containers: D containers, also known as cargo boxes, air-freight containers, or air-cargo containers, are large cardboard boxes on a pallet. Sizes vary from 48-by-39-by-40 inches to 58-by-41-by-45 inches. These large, reusable boxes are a good alternative if crates are out of your price range. They break down well for storage, and I can generally get three to four shipments out of each container. They’re great for protecting irregularly shaped shipments or to use as a master box for smaller cartons. They’re also efficient to ship, especially via van line, as they fit two wide and two tall in the van when placed on stacker bars. D containers can be purchased from companies that sell packaging materials and boxes and cost about £50 to £75 each, depending on the quantity you buy. Before buying them, check with your internal shipping and receiving departments to see if they receive products in these containers and can save them for you.
Portable Strapping Kit: If you’re going to use D containers, purchase a portable strapping kit so you can secure your D containers to their pallets. These three-part kits include half-inch polypropylene strapping, buckles, and a knife. Kits with metal banding are also available, but aren’t as lightweight for shipping and are harder to cut. The kits cost less than £50 and are worth owning, since you’ll pay more than this on show site just to have one pallet banded by your I&D contractor. They weigh less than 15 pounds for 3,000 feet of strapping and 300 buckles, making them easy to ship. If you don’t need the whole kit, you can pre-cut pieces long enough to fit around your D containers and put them in plastic bags with their metal clips.
Bubble Wrap: Shipments aren’t handled with kid gloves, so if you have product or display items that need extra protection, use Bubble Wrap. It comes in various sizes of bubbles and backing and even in bags you can just slip your fragile items inside. For hard-to-wrap or irregularly shaped items, use adhesive Bubble Mask, which sticks lightly to whatever you’re wrapping without the hassle of taping each piece. It’s reusable, peels off easily, comes in varying widths (6, 12, and 24 inches), and is perforated every 12 inches. It doesn’t leave any sticky residue, but sticks to just about everything except unfinished wood.
Black Stretch Wrap: I love black stretch wrap, because it allows you to hide box labels that reveal names or photos of valuables that are inside just waiting to be pilfered. And, if you happen to misplace a pallet of cartons on the show floor, the black wrap will help you quickly locate your pallet amid an ocean of brown cardboard wrapped in clear plastic. The price is comparable to that of clear stretch wrap, running roughly £40 to £50 for a case of four 1,500-foot rolls.
Tear-by-Hand Tape: If you’ve ever been bitten by a tape gun or frustrated trying to load tape into one, this product is for you. It is good quality packing tape, made by Scotch, that seals securely but has little microscopic cuts along the edges that allow you to tear it by hand. It is more expensive than standard packing tape, but it is worth every penny.
Hook and Loop: How did trade shows exist before Velcro was invented in 1948? I never leave home without at least two 25-yard rolls of it (one roll of hook, one roll of loop). It’s the best way to attach graphics to your exhibit. You can purchase rolls of hook-and-loop fastener in a number of widths and colours, and in various strengths of bond and adhesive. It also comes in squares, dots, and shapes designed to function as wire managers. Prices vary by manufacturer and width, but beware of inexpensive knockoffs with inferior adhesive, unless you want to find your damaged graphics on the floor the day after you hang them.
Gaffer Tape: Gaffer tape (aka gaffer’s tape, gaff tape, gaffing tape, or cloth tape) is a tough, fabric-backed adhesive tape used extensively in the entertainment industry. The tape is manufactured in many colours, but most commonly in matte black, red, and white. It’s perfect for taping down cords to carpet, and doesn’t leave the sticky residue that duct tape leaves behind when you pull it up.
Cleaners and Polishes Instant Carpet Spot Remover: I had been using Instant Carpet Spot Remover at my home for years before I thought to try it on my exhibit carpet, which had a nasty ink stain from an inkjet printer — and it worked! You can also use it to clean stains on your rental furniture. It can be found with other carpet-cleaning products at most home-improvement stores, discount retailers, grocery stores, and drug stores for less than £8 a bottle.
Spot Lifter: At about £5 per 5-ounce aerosol can, Spot Lifter literally lifts spots and stains on clothes or fabrics into its powder as it quickly dries. The cap of the spray can has bristles on it to brush off the powder and stain residue after it dries. Find it with the laundry products at your grocery store or local discount store.
Polishes: When it comes to making your plastic literature racks, light boxes, or surface laminates shine, think Novus Polishes. The company manufactures three different products — Novus 1 to clean and polish, Novus 2 to remove fine scratches, and Novus 3 to remove surface abrasions and deep scratches to plastic. You can purchase them separately for about £3 per 2-ounce bottle, or in a set, known as the Novus 1-2-3 Trio, in various sizes starting at £10 a set. Novus polish is carried by most home-improvement and hardware stores and is also available online.
Glass Cleaner: The aerosol all-purpose spray cleaner is my favourite for wiping down your exhibit and keeping your glass display cases shiny. It is reasonably priced and easily available in a two-can pack at large discount warehouse stores or in single cans at your local grocery store.
Miscellaneous Exhibit Supplies Pocket Level: For less than £5, you can get an ABS plastic yellow-vial pocket level with a pocket clip and V-shaped groove on the side to level your exhibit and graphics.
Permanent Markers: To touch up nicks on your booth, purchase permanent markers at an office-supply or art-supply store to match the various surface colours in your exhibit. They’re easier to use than the touch-up paint provided by your exhibit house.
Double-Sided Adhesive Tape: One of the least expensive, but most used, quick-fix supplies to have in your office-supply box is a roll of double-sided adhesive tape. My I&D crew lovingly refers to it as “booger tape.” Regardless of what you call it, keep it handy.