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Will the Pandemic Help to End “Build & Burn” Event Planning?

24 Feb 2021 2:01 PM | Francis Purvey (Administrator)

By Al Mercuro, Trade Show & Event Specialist: Helping clients create dynamic experiential marketing programs with sustainability

It may seem a little strange to say it now in the middle of a pandemic, but this might be the ideal time to reinvent how we exhibit at events with an eye towards sustainability.

In recent years there has been a movement toward minimizing waste in the event industry, from minimizing printed materials to laying down carpet tiles that can be re-used. Nancy Zavada founder and president of MeetGreen, was thinking outside the box when she found a way to donate graphic murals from the IMEX America show, which often get trashed after one show, to a senior citizen home for use in their common areas.

But one hurdle that hasn’t been overcome is the problem of what is known as “Build & Burn.” That’s when a custom exhibit is built for a particular event and when the show is over it literally gets tossed into a landfill. I hope it’s obvious that this practice is inherently wasteful, but while it has largely fallen out of favor in the U.S., Build & Burn is still commonplace in Europe and Asia.

A few years ago, for example, one of my financial clients needed me to design and build three 20-foot inline exhibits, one for the US, one for Europe, and one for Asia. She accepted our proposal for two of the three but said she found a much lower price for the exhibit in Asia. I warned her about the Build & Burn issue and asked her whether the exhibit will be designed and constructed for long-term, multiple-event use. Well, three months later she called me to say the vendor disposed of the exhibit after the first show.

“Even though there are increased efforts internationally to use sustainable or recycled materials in the construction of trade show exhibits, Build & Burn is still the predominant method of booth construction in many parts of the world,” says Tom Beard, Regional Sales Manager of Classic Exhibits. “It has a major impact on the environment due to the amount of materials sent to a landfill.”

There are some legitimate reasons why companies choose Build & Burn exhibits. Some shows may only happen once every three or four years and exhibitors won’t want to pay to have their exhibits shipped back and stored, especially if they’ll need new design and graphics to match the company’s future marketing messages.

However, there are eco-friendly alternatives to Build & Burn. One alternative is what some call “Euro-Booths.” They’re modular designs based on a common white-wall structure, each with the same counter. Exhibitors rent the booth and just bring their graphics. The booths are reusable and since they’re usually stored on-site or near the venue, they also cut down on shipping costs

“Rentals are the most eco-friendly way to exhibit internationally,” says Beard of Classic Exhibits.

Some vendors, however, want a unique look that will differentiate them from their competitors. To fill that niche, some vendors are now offering custom rental solution that looks more like a custom-built exhibit with the sustainability benefits of a reusable exhibit.

As companies increasingly emphasize sustainability throughout their businesses, they’ll want to work with event partners that can support those goals through re-usable alternatives, that often also save money, rather than wasteful Build & Burn exhibits.

“From what I’ve heard, the tide is turning from Build & Burns based on awareness of the wastefulness of it in some areas and the associated shipping/labor/disposal costs,” says Candy Adams, The Booth Mom, expert Exhibit Management Trainer and well known Tradeshow Speaker, “Another cost factor is the availability of more aluminum extrusion systems/SEG (silicone edged graphic) fabrics; it’s getting to the point of being cheaper to rent the extrusion, and print it in Asia and ship it to shows, rather than building a one-time-use exhibit onsite and then trashing it.”

 As we look toward the day when live events resume, let’s hope that sustainability becomes an important part of the conversation. The Pandemic Pause could provide an important opportunity to rethink the events business and move past Build & Burn exhibiting. Glenda Brungardt, Global Tradeshow/Event Manager at tech giant HP said it best. “Bottom line for me: Build & Burn may be a simple solution for a specific show. But as an event planner it is my job to look at the bigger picture and what impact my choices in the construction of a booth have not only on the environment but also on the brand I represent.”


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