While ushering the world into a new digital era, the COVID-19 pandemic also rekindled a desire for bigger, bolder in-person connections. This change couldn’t be more welcome across event services—especially within the tent industry.
“It’s amazing what people have done with tents over the past two years,” says Bryan Bolt, technical solutions manager at TopTec Event Tents in Moore, S.C. “More than ever before, many tents feature graphics and many customers and end users are seeking an interactive, branded experience.”
Fred Tracy, president of Fred’s Tents and Canopies Inc. in Waterford, N.Y., agrees. Though he’s experienced several transformations in tent graphics over the past 30 years, he’s amazed by the recent surges in printing technology and demand. “People are stretching the idea of what graphics can do in exciting ways.”
A tent manufacturer with in-house printing services, Fred’s Tents has completed several unique tent graphic projects, such as a New Jersey boardwalk replica, a traveling tradeshow exhibit resembling a house, and an under-the-sea theme complete with ocean sounds and smells to play on all senses. “I think that’s where the industry is headed,” Tracy says. “With sporting events, tradeshows and exhibits ramping up again, we have good roads ahead of us that will allow for more creative graphics at more events.”
Designing from the ground up
When you’re building an experience that people are paying to participate in, flooring cannot be an afterthought, says Cory Stoken, co-owner and chief operating officer of FloorEXP Inc. and Mod-Fence Systems LLC in Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
Stoken was drawn to the events industry because of its similarities to his initial career goal—film production. “You’re collaborating with a large crew to put on a show. But instead of being on screen, the show is in person,” he says. “I quickly fell in love with the many ways branding and visual effects can help tell the story of an event.”
From custom carpets and runners to vinyl, turf and synthetic grass, FloorEXP designs flooring for all types of tented events, though sporting events have taken the lead recently. “After being cooped up for so long, consumers are driving demand for bigger and bigger sporting events,” Stoken says. “A lot of brands are noticing that and getting more creative with how they show up to these events.”
Handmade carpet inlays are Stoken’s favorite product to design and fabricate. He creates a custom design template in Adobe Illustrator®, prints it to any scale using a wide-format printer, and then staples it to a piece of carpet for easy tracing. Using a knife, he cuts out shapes based on the template design and hot glues them together.
His company prints products as well, but Stoken says the craftsmanship and quality of the handmade inlays are second to none. “Technology for printed flooring—carpet, especially—is certainly getting better. And we use dye sublimation, which gives the carpet deep, rich colors that really pop. However, the carpet we can print on is thin and wears out quickly for longer-term events. So, it always depends on the customer’s needs and finding a delicate balance between aesthetics and functionality.”
Determining the best ink for the job
Tent graphics have come a long way since the cumbersome cut-adhere-repeat process from decades ago. Today, companies typically use UV, latex or solvent ink to digitally print designs directly onto the tent fabric.
UV and latex inks are growing in popularity because they are more environmentally friendly and print completely dry, which eliminates the waiting period between printing and usage that solvents require.
Solvents were frequently used in the past because of their durability and the vivid colors they produce. However, the chemicals in most solvents—which enable the ink to stick so well to the fabric—trigger the release of harmful gases into the air during the printing process. Eco-friendly solvents are available and being continually developed, but their overall quality often lacks in comparison to other options.
Bolt’s print partners primarily use latex ink, for example, because of its ability to last on tents that are folded up and transported repeatedly.
Tracy, on the other hand, prefers the flexibility of UV ink. “A tricky factor to consider is that fabric manufacturers are consistently developing products that more strongly repel things like dirt, dust and stains—but that can affect the longevity of any graphics printed onto the fabric. There’s a fine line between fabric quality and ink durability.”
Delivering value in every size
The phrase “branded experience” tends to conjure images of lavish tents and sweeping crowds, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, the majority of Bolt’s printed jobs are smaller tents for universities and restaurants.
“Post-COVID, we’ve seen more businesses set up tents for longer periods of time. Many of our customers’ clients are even choosing to buy tents instead of renting as they had in the past. And if they’re willing to invest in a tent long term, they’re certainly going to want visibility,” Bolt says.
Lori Basham, office manager at Central Tent, which has locations in Humble, Texas, and Ringgold, Ga., has witnessed the same trend. “Right now, we’re doing a lot of logos for smaller businesses who want brighter and bolder ways to advertise,” she says. “Restaurants, car dealerships—you name it. Business owners want to stand out more than ever, and even just larger, crisper, more colorful lettering can make a difference.”
Supply chain issues have stalled printing machinery updates at Central Tent, but Basham is looking forward to expanding the company’s printing options over the next few years. “Whether they’re internal, external, on roofs, sidewalls or floors, graphics just keep getting better. It’s an exciting space to be in.”
Discerning future trends
The booming interest and advances in printing technology don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Bolt cautions that this may create factions within the industry: “Some people don’t want to deal with the costs or intricacies associated with graphics, but others are fully embracing it. At TopTec, we pick and choose print projects that make the most sense for our business. It’s never fun to turn down jobs, but this approach has worked well for us so far.”
For those who are all in, many opportunities abound. A recent occurrence Tracy is seeing more of, for example, is filling a void caused by ongoing supply chain delays. As specific colors of fabric become increasingly unavailable, entire color palettes identified through the Pantone® Matching System (PMS) can instead be printed to achieve the same look.
Tracy is also anticipating new ink technologies that could be sensitive to temperature or light. “Think of what we could do with ink properties similar to those used in the Coors Light cans that change color when they reach a specific temperature or that become reflective when met with light.”
Another technique he’s already implemented and hopes to use more often in the future is the five-pass process (also called a dual image): Printing on translucent material, a graphic layer is then followed by white ink, then black ink, then white ink block-out layers and then a different graphic layer, resulting in a different image on each side of the material.
“It’s hard to be on top of the game because new techniques and technologies are coming out so quickly, but we’re trying to stay in front of it all and bring new and creative ideas to the industry,” Tracy says. “I don’t know what we’ll be learning or training employees on in two or three years, but I know it will be innovative and help our industry continue to move forward.”
Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Searching for sustainable solutions
Climate-friendly practices are more critical than ever, but difficult to achieve across event services. “That’s a big obstacle our entire industry faces—especially in the flooring industry. There’s just not a great way to recycle carpet,” says Cory Stoken, co-owner and chief operating officer of FloorEXP Inc. and Mod-Fence Systems LLC in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “I’ve been trying to think of different ways to reuse materials and reaching out to organizations that turn recycled materials into fabric or other products but haven’t found a partner that’s a good fit. It’s very important to find a solution for this challenge, so I hope our industry can work together to improve in this area.”
Most printed products in the U.S. are unlikely to be recycled unless they’re made of polyethylene, notes Fred Tracy, president of Fred’s Tents and Canopies Inc. in Waterford, N.Y. But he does look for ways to reuse these items to keep them out of landfills, such as offering them as industrial covers for farmers’ equipment or hay. “I have more customers asking if we print on hemp or canvas or other more natural products. And we absolutely can,” he says. “More ink developers are also keeping this top of mind as they create new products. It’s a question on a lot of our minds lately: What can we do to make this better and safer?”