Trade Show TalesBlog

Stuck in the 90’s? Mullets, Trapper Keepers, Pagers, and Rentals

June 4th, 2015 3 COMMENTS


Recently, what I thought would be a simple, straight-forward conversation left me scratching my head. I was meeting with exhibit industry colleagues, and the topic turned to rentals. Admittedly, rentals shouldn’t be puzzling. Rentals have exploded at a rate 3 to 4 times faster than exhibit purchases since the recession. It’s a hot topic. What surprised me was the perception and the language used to define the exhibit rental landscape.

You would think the sales numbers would prompt a new approach. Yet, many industry professionals are still using assumptions that are — frankly — antiquated. What do I mean by that? Allow me to share the conversation.

“How often are customers asking you to design and quote a rental exhibit?”

Colleague 1:  “Not often. It comes up if there’s a budget challenge, and the client is looking for alternatives. I’ll mention it then, but it’s not the first place I go.”

Colleague 2: “My experience is very different. I would say 30-50% of my conversations are about rentals and there’s a reason. After we talk about what they want to achieve with their exhibit marketing program, I’ll ask them, ‘Are you considering a purchase or a rental?’”

IMG_8357Colleague 1: “Why would you head in that direction? I don’t understand that logic.”

Colleague 2:  “6-10 years ago, I wouldn’t have. The rental options were limited, but that’s changed depending on the exhibit house or manufacturer. Now most exhibitors can rent a design-centric inline or island that achieves their objectives at a cost anywhere from 30-50% less than a purchase depending on how many times they reuse the graphics. The exhibitor has to do their homework since some exhibit houses and general contractors will show rentals, but their designs are stale, can’t be customized, and are often dinged up and dirty.”

“How do you talk about costs when it comes to rentals?”

Colleague 1:  “I use the 3 to 1 formula. If the customer plans to rent more than three times, then they should purchase it.”

Colleague 2:  “I don’t mean to be rude, but we should finally bury that formula. It made sense when customers were purchasing simple portables like pop-ups or folding panel systems, or buying a fully custom exhibit. Anymore, my customers want to personalize the display and the message for each show. They are laser-focused on their current marketing goals and how to achieve it. In so many industries, the market moves too fast to repeat the same message year-after-year. Rentals, and hybrid rentals in particular, are ideal structures for this flexibility.”

Colleague 1:  “You’ve given me an idea. Let me use a car analogy. When looking for a car, your choice used to be buying a new or used one. Now, you can buy or lease a car. The dealer welcomes either one. It’s simply a matter of what makes more sense to the customer’s lifestyle and pocketbook.”

Colleague 2:  “Excellent analogy. So many exhibitors no longer want to own an exhibit. They don’t have a place to store or preview it. For others, their budgets are restricted so a well-defined monthly or annual expense makes more sense. Many, however, simply want the flexibility to change the design and graphics and not owning the display makes that easier.”

Do you have customers that rent and own an exhibit?

CIMG4726Colleague 2: I would say that’s the norm. They may own smaller properties, such as banner stands and inexpensive 10 ft. displays. They may also own a customized island. The other islands or inlines are often rentals. Or I’m seeing a blending where customers own an inline that perfectly reflects their branding, but they rent the counters, kiosks, charging stations, etc.

Colleague 1: I’ve been encountering something similar now that you mention it. I have companies coming to me for multiple counters, kiosks, or tablet stands for an event. They need stations for each product or customer/company interaction. Traditional event or show furniture doesn’t make sense.

Colleague 2:  You’re right. There are suppliers that will rent 40 pedestals or 14 large monitor stands that are modular, attractive, and cost-effective. It would be silly for the client to purchase them. They want something professional, but they don’t want to own them after the event.

As you can see by the conversation, exhibit rental properties have changed, and customers are demanding displays that fit their budget, their objectives, and their branding requirements. This requires that exhibit professionals understand how to present rentals and that exhibitors are more aware of rentals as an option.  Still have questions? Feel free to send me an email or give me a call.

–Mel White


Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100 or



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3 Responses to “Stuck in the 90’s? Mullets, Trapper Keepers, Pagers, and Rentals”

  1. Fantastic article! Thank you for stating this topic so clearly. I’m sure we can use this to be even more helpful to our customers and generate more revenue.

  2. Roy Muller says:

    You’re not kidding, Mel. Our company has been extremely active in the rental business for almost 25 years now. And many of our distributors still see rentals as a stepping stone to a sale.. as opposed to seeing the rental as the sale. The distributors that have embraced it see the repetitive business that rentals generate with some companies often renting 2-5 times per year. And not just inlines but large islands and double deckers. Over and over again, I’ve seen a single rental, over the course of the relationship generate many times the revenue that the sale would have. As you stated above, sometimes companies rent because they simply don’t have the staff and warehouse space to manage an exhibit. Nor do they want to deal with it. They may exhibit 3 times a year and rent the same exhibit all 3 times for years on end. This happens – regularly. Sure, they could have bought it a few times over over the years but instead, they put all the headaches on us, they did not have to beef up staff to deal with the thing and our distributors are healthier because they generated more revenue through the process. Is it more fun to sell an $80k booth than a $28k rental? Yep. But when that $28k comes around 3 times a year, year after year, it’s way more profitable and it truly works for everyone involved.

  3. Mark Salyer says:

    Nice piece, we adamantly agree with Mel, here at Structure Exhibits, based in Las Vegas, our main business is custom rentals because many exhibitors don’t want to ship their booth across the continent or across the globe to a major show here. Besides offering the usual rental solutions, we also offer custom rentals with our own system of wall panels, in-house graphics, accessories, furniture, and Turn-Key Show Services that give the impression of being a new custom booth while at the cost of a rental with no shipping or storage. Every piece in our systems is cleaned and repaired after every show so as to always looks new, never be “dinged-up or dirty”, and every design is unique for that client we don’t have “kits”.

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