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Tent graphics create their own audience

May 1st, 2008 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Picture a tent, pure white and large enough in which to park a Boeing 747. What would you notice about it? Probably that it was very large, and very white. But what could you notice?

“The tent by itself says something special is going on here,” says John Schlueter of Karl’s Event Rental. “But if you have all that square footage, it’s almost like having a billboard but not having any printing on it, or having a sign in front of a business but not having the name on it.

“I think our clients have figured that out,” adds Schlueter, president of the Milwaukee, Wis., business, whose event consultants have been educating clients on the benefits of tent graphics, a marketing opportunity for virtually any business that uses a tent.

Fashion forward

If any industry understands the importance of branding, it’s the fashion industry. And if anyone understands the importance of a graphics-printed tent, it’s Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion and the producer of Fashion Week in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. While what people see on the runways is all about designer names, such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Donna Karan, what they see outside is all about the title sponsors: Mercedes-Benz and Fashion Week.

“We use the front [of the tent] to make some noise and celebrate what’s happening inside,” Mallis says.

In her case, that means changing with the seasons, just as fabrics and hem lengths do. Last September (the spring 2008 show), the Bryant Park tents sported a black-and-white, 1980-dated map of Manhattan. February’s show (for fall 2008) recalled a Greco-Roman temple, but with a lighthearted take.

“The frieze had muses and classically draped figures carrying hairbrushes and makeup tools and cameras, so they were the players who would be behind the [Fashion Week] scenes dressed as if they were in a Greco-Roman temple,” Mallis says. “As an event operator, our lives would be very simple if we just put the name of the event up on a nice white tent front … and let the shows do the talking, but because it is fashion and it keeps changing, because we want to keep people excited and interested and keep it fresh, we keep changing the graphics.”

High impact, low budget

You needn’t spend IMG’s seasonal $4 million Fashion Week budget, however, to make your point. Economy Tent International, Miami, Fla., produces graphic tents as small as 10 by 10 feet for colleges, military bases, and companies that simply want their logo on a canopy for a trade show or festival.

“We have a steady amount of graphic printing orders,” says Shelly Lapping, Economy’s director of sales and marketing. “I think every year it’s certainly increasing.”

Karl’s clients order graphics-covered tents primarily for sporting events, trade shows, and road shows outside retail establishments.

“What’s been common for a few years for us is just getting the brand name, the company name, out on the structure,” Schlueter says. That, however, is changing. Now clients are a using a full-color photograph of the actual product to print on the tent.

“It is just because of competition,” Schlueter says. “So many of our other customers have been putting their name on for a while, so the forward-thinking folks are looking for the next great thing, which is actually showing the product.”

Schlueter says that companies as diverse as a national liquor brand or a home improvement company have found the value in branding temporary structures.

“Almost every day we’re installing structures nationally that are branded [with graphics]. Not just the side walls, but really we’re just doing the whole structure from ground right to the peak,” Schlueter says. “I can think of a couple in particular where every square inch of the structure is covered with printing.”

One of his favorites was a tent with a solid black background.

“This national marker company had a new line of fluorescent markers, and they had all the new colors, maybe 15 of them, [printed] much, much bigger than life-size — up to 8 feet long, each with the caps off. It just looked great,” he says.

More choices

Leslie Haddad, business manager for Herculite, Emigsville, Pa., attributes the increased use in graphics on tents in part to more affordable, user-friendly printing equipment and better inks. Ayear ago, Herculite—an innovator in tent and structure fabrics—introduced a tent fabric designed for long-term outdoor graphics display. The Showtime Graphic Tent combines an opaque vinyl with a proprietary ink-receptive surface, at a cost about 5 percent higher than standard vinyl.

“We designed a product that was made for long-term wearability outside that would readily accept digital graphics, since the market is growing with digital and pressure-sensitive graphics,” Haddad says. “More and more companies are customizing their tents.”

While some tent suppliers outsource graphic printing services, others, such as Anchor Industries Inc. of Evansville, Ind., have invested in a large-format digital printer. Anchor, which purchased a Mimaki printer three years ago, can print up to 61 inches wide, though graphics can be welded together to create even larger images.

Hand-painting. “We also hand-paint,” graphics designer Tony Becker says. “We use a silicone-backed masking tape that we run through a plotter. We cut out the graphic and then paint out the part that is peeled.”

Becker says hand painting has two advantages: It can be done on colored material, whereas digital printing can be done only on white; and it is a little more durable because the ink comes out thicker and is more scratch-resistant.

“How detailed the artwork is decides how we do it,” Becker says. “If it’s a simple logo, we’ll hand-paint because of the cost factor. If there’s a lot of detail, requiring five or six masks, then we print it.”

There are some things they’ll do with a printer, such as a photograph, because it can’t be done with a mask.

“We have had occasions where the customer would want a yellow tent. If they want yellow inside and out, we use hand painting. We could flip the material over, but that would get real expensive,” Becker says.

Silkscreen vs. digital. Economy Tent relies on silkscreen printing if customers want colored fabric on both sides, but “we will try to talk them into digital vs. screening because it’s so much more precise,” Lapping says.

KD Kanopy Inc. of Westminster, Colo., has been applying spot graphics through silkscreen printing for 15 years, and four years ago added digital inkjet printing to its repertoire.

“People were requesting more graphics on their tents, larger and bolder, and you can only get so large with silkscreen,” President John Matthews explains, noting the limitations of the size of the silkscreen printing table, and the length of the squeegee used to push the ink through the screen.

Requests to KD for spot graphics has grown an average of 10 percent a year.

“I think people are just more aware of the capabilities of outdoor signage,” Matthews says. “Outdoor signage used to be crude, with block letters, but now you can do anything with digital printing.”

Much of KD’s business comes from radio stations for remote transmissions, breweries setting up tents at events, and race-car drivers wanting canopies for their cars at racetracks. The largest graphic tent produced in-house is 1,320 square feet; larger projects are outsourced.

“With digital, I can do a photograph, with silkscreening, just letters,” Matthews says.

He notes that digital printing also is best for multiple-colored logos, fading in and out of colors, and colors that extend beyond flat surfaces. KD uses 500-denier Oxford polyester with urethane backing and a Mimaki digital printer.

New printers create markets. Jim Freed, who has been in the digital printing business for 12 years, attributes the increased use of graphic tents in part to technology. “Our printers are getting larger and faster, and the [dots-per-inch resolution] is increasing,” says Freed, vice president of operations forSource One Digital in Muskegon, Mich. The newest of Source One’s five printers offers twice the resolution of its older machines and a capacity of an additionalsix feet in width (for a total of 16feet). They purchased a Jeti printerfrom Gandinnovations of Mississauga, Ontario, a littlemore than a year ago.

Stickers an option. Bob Banasiak, president of Show Graphics International of North Hollywood, Calif., is more than satisfied with his 10-month-old Roland digital printer. Banasiak points to a solution for those who prefer to rent a tent but still want a branding presence.

“The trend right now is to have a sticker printed rather than silkscreen a tent,” he says. The adhesive-backed vinyl, he says, “stays on [the tent] and is just as durable” as a graphic directly applied to the tent.

The drawback to a “sticker” is that once it is peeled off the tent, it cannot be reused.

Inks and fabrics

There are a few methods available to turn white fabric into a branding statement. Joseph Terramagra, who works in the sales and marketing division of Mimaki USA Inc., a digital printer manufacturer with U.S. headquarters in Suwanee, Ga., says the first step is to determine the type of material you are going to use: Dye sublimation, which uses water-based ink, is best for nylon; inkjet printing with solvent-based inks is best for vinyl.

Water or solvent-based inks. While sublimation results in more vibrant colors, Terramagra says, it requires more steps and more equipment — specifically, a heat system that costs anywhere from $11,000 to $60,000. Mimaki’s product line for inkjet printers ranges from a 54-inch-wide machine to a 120-inch-wide machine. They can be used with water-based or solvent-based inks, but you cannot regularly switch back and forth between the two.

Mimaki offers two types of solvent inks: “true” solvent and the more environmentally friendly eco-solvent. The first requires more ventilation/air scrubbers, but lasts longer. According to Terramagra, graphics on a tent sitting outside year-round would last three to five years without lamination, five to seven years with. Eco-solvent graphics might last two years without the clear coating and three to five years with it. Dye-sublimated graphics are rarely laminated and last five to seven years. Since solvent inks lie on the surface of the fabric, they are more susceptible to being scratched.

Resolution and durability. Roland DGA Corp., with U.S. headquarters in Irvine, Calif., offers two ink sets: Eco and EcoXtreme. According to Robert Ozankan, senior product manager for color products, the solvent is rated for three years’ outdoor durability and is water, alcohol, abrasion, and UV resistant. Roland’s printers range from a 30-inch-wide, four-color printer to a 104-inch-wide, six-color machine. Both Mimaki and Roland sell digital printers that can achieve a resolution of 1,440 dots per inch.

“That’s fine art,” Terramagra says. “In the true product, you can actually have resolutions at 540 by 1,080 or 720 by 720.” The size of the surface area to be covered determines the resolution requirements of the original digital image supplied, i.e., a TIF logo or JPG photograph. For a six by six-foot image, Terramagra says, you need at least 100 dpi; double that area and you need to double the dpi. However, he adds, a 300 dpi resolution can be blown up much larger with good results.

As for possible “trouble colors,” the key to matching vibrant reds and blacks lies in setting up the printer’s “color profile” properly. “If you provide the right profile, red should always be red and black should always be black,” Terramagra notes.

It’s obvious!

Digital printing has literally changed the landscape. Walk through just about any outdoor festival event these days, and you will find brightly colored tents splashed with logos and images of people, places, and products.

When companies consider the myriad of ways to get their names in front of consumers, graphic tents seem an obvious and logical move. Whether they want to establish a presence at a community park or on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue, savvy businesses realize the benefits of creating a visual impact — even a temporary one.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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