What Pipe and Drape Has in Common with Penicillin

U.S. trade shows haven't changed their basic design in a century. Can we do better?

It’s been four decades since I first became involved in the exhibition industry. From day one, I have been troubled by the appearance of the pipe and drape that is a part of virtually all business-to-business trade shows in the U.S.

When you visit exhibitions in other nations, your first impression is how neat, tidy, and professional their hard-wall or stretched fabric systems look compared to our flea-market-appropriate pipe and drape. Most first-time international exhibitors are aghast when they see our pipe and drape, and rightly so.

When I began my career, our events were housed in unattractive concrete and cinder-block structures—basically, just four walls, a high ceiling, and a cement floor. They were very poorly lit to boot. Today, beautifully designed convention centers and hotels host our events, but we’ve still got the same shabby pipe and drape. While exhibitors spend thousands of dollars to create their booth exhibits, we still wrap them in rags.

Pipe and drape was introduced to American trade shows in 1919. Think hard for a moment about any other product, machine, or technology that has remained virtually unchanged and unimproved in the century since. The only thing I can think of is penicillin (introduced in 1928). The one upgrade to the original model is that today’s drape is fireproof, and that change only happened following the catastrophic fire in 1967 that reduced McCormick Place to rubble.

It’s not just that pipe and drape looks really tacky, it’s also environmentally unsound. Drapes need to be cleaned frequently, and with more than 10,000 exhibitions in the U.S. every year, an enormous amount of toxic detergent finds its way into our watershed. And how about all that wasted water at a time when water is becoming a precious commodity?  By and large, the exhibition industry recognizes its responsibility to reduce waste and trash but still draws the line short of pipe and drape.

There are still more reasons to replace pipe and drape. An unintended outcome of pipe and drape is that it creates a definite caste system in which exhibitors whose space is defined by pipe and drape are viewed differently than exhibitors in 20-foot-by-20-foot islands (and larger) who present their wares from beautiful custom-designed exhibits absent all pipe and drape. The subliminal message: Pipe and drape is for a lower class of exhibitor. This runs completely counter to one of the fundamental values of trade shows—providing new businesses a point of entry into a marketplace on a level playing field.

Finally, pipe and drape encourages pilferage. All manner of items are commonly stored behind the back wall drape. Clever thieves know where easy-to-snatch booty resides and as a result lots of laptops, briefcases, and purses regularly go missing.

Now in my second career and whittling down my bucket list, there’s only one item yet to be checked off: Get rid of pipe and drape. In an era when we take for granted virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, when we are on the threshold of self-driving vehicles, when medical science is racing ahead with new miracle therapies, surely we can find a better way to present our trade shows than with pipe and drape.

Steven Hacker, CEM, FASAE, is principal, The Bravo Management Group.

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