Lighting a Fine Craft Trade Show Booth – Options for the Budget-Conscious Artist
Good lighting is a main ingredient of a successful trade-show booth. Just the right lighting system can help an artist create the atmosphere of a fine-craft gallery. This will lure gallery owners off the isles and into your booth – the first step toward making a sale.
Lighting is a relatively expensive investment. So how does the budget-conscious artist find the right solution?
When it comes to choosing a lighting system, artists new to the trade show circuit often become overwhelmed. Prices vary wildly, and each convention center may have its own lighting rules. Lighting technology is changing rapidly, making the choices harder still.
This article details what I learned while tackling the challenge of lighting my 10’X10’ booth at the American Craft Retailers Expo (ACRE), a large wholesale show for American and Canadian craft artists. As I am new to trade shows, this information is meant only as a pointer for artists in the process of choosing lighting, and perhaps also for more seasoned artists looking to update their systems.
In examining many different lighting options, my objective was to illuminate my glass jewelry beautifully but inexpensively. I wanted the lights to be lightweight and modular, to fit in boxes for shipping to the show. I was looking for contemporary styling, in silver or black. And I wanted to have at least one special lighting effect – not too flashy – to give my booth a unique element.
In his CD on booth design, art business consultant Bruce Baker suggests 1,000 watts will light up a 10’X10’ booth very effectively. I decided to stay at or under 500 watts, however, because the ACRE show includes 500 watts with the booth price, and the halogen lighting I ultimately decided upon illuminates my displays very well. Since I bought the lights at a “big-box” store with sites in virtually every city in the U.S., I can add more lights once I’m at the trade show if necessary.
The Battle of the Bulb
Contractors Choice Lighting (www.ccl-light.com) says a light fixture is simply a “bulb holder.” The bulb, therefore, should drive one’s choice of a fixture. This is somewhat true for trade-show lighting, although the fixtures may dictate the types of bulbs, depending on the choices available at the store where one shops for the lights. The CCL website offers a “Bulb Photometrics” page ([http://ccl-light.com/photometrics.html]), whose graphical representation is a refreshing departure from the complex descriptions of lighting options that have proliferated on the web.
Halogen is the bulb of choice for many trade show exhibitors. It offers a crisp, white light. Although people commonly refer to halogen as non-incandescent, it is in fact a kind of incandescent lamp. It generates light by using a thin filament wire made of tungsten, heated to white by passing an electric current through it. According to General Electric, the first halogen lamp was developed in 1959 – not too long ago for many of us!
Halogen bulbs differ significantly from the traditional type of incandescents we grew up with. The halogen bulb’s filament is surrounded by halogen gases (iodine or bromine, specifically). These gases let the filaments operate at higher temperatures. The end result is a higher light output per watt.
The gases also do something rather miraculous: Tungsten tends to evaporate off the filament over time, and the gases actually help re-deposit the tungsten onto the filament. This extends the bulb’s life way beyond that of the traditional incandescent bulb, whose evaporated tungsten clings to the walls of the bulb like a smoky apparition and eventually the uncoated filament snaps. Who hasn’t rattled a burnt-out light bulb and enjoyed the jazzy cymbal sound of the broken filament inside?
In addition to giving off more light than traditional incandescent bulbs, halogen bulbs emit a whiter light that provides better color rendition. “For highlighting and bringing out true colors, use halogen lamps,” suggests USA Light and Electric’s website (www.usalight.com). “Nothing looks better than the drama brought in with halogen lamps.”
Baker also suggests halogen lights – floodlights in particular – for a contemporary look, especially for jewelry and glass. It’s important to consider that other fine craft materials such as ceramics and wood might be better enhanced with halogen spotlights, or even with some of the more traditional incandescent lights that emit a warmer color.
Having decided upon halogen lighting, my next task would be to choose bulbs. The ACRE show takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which has instituted a strict halogen lighting policy. Each light cannot exceed 75 watts, and all halogen bulbs must be factory sealed in glass (not in a removable lens or linear shape).
Thankfully, there is plenty of factory-sealed halogen lighting, in the form of PAR halogen bulbs. PAR is an acronym for “parabolic aluminized reflector.” PAR bulbs have a built-in reflecting surface made of pressed glass. The glass provides both an internal reflector and prisms in the lens for control of the light beam.
PAR bulbs are numbered, as in PAR 16, PAR 20, PAR 56. The PAR number refers to the bulb shape. Bulbs.com has a halogen section of the site where you can quickly compare the various PAR bulbs visually. Within a given category of PAR bulbs there are various wattages, wide and narrow spotlights and floodlights, different base sizes, and even different colors.
Fortunately I was able to skip the process of deciding on a PAR bulb by deciding first where to shop for my lights (more on that below).
When you go to shop for track lights, you’ll notice there’s a choice between 12-volt and 120-volt fixtures. 120 is the standard voltage that comes directly into most homes and offices – and convention centers.
For a lamp using 120 volts, no additional parts are necessary beyond a regular socket. 120-volt fixtures generally are lighter than 12-volt fixtures because they don’t need a transformer. They also cost less and can use halogen or regular incandescent bulbs.
I stopped short of investigating 12-volt fixtures, except to find out that they step down the amount of energy being used to a lower voltage, and thus are more energy efficient. They require a transformer to convert the 120-volt household current to 12 volts, and they may require hardwiring (although one artist I know found a 12-volt fixture with a built-in transformer which she was able to plug into a 120-volt outlet. A 12-volt fixture accommodates very efficient bulbs that offer a variety of wattages and beam spreads, including the 50-watt MR-16, which is popular in galleries.
I decided on 120-volt lighting for the trade show, because I wouldn’t have to worry about transformers and could just plug it in.
Choosing a Store and Track Lighting
I read the ACRE online forum for clues about where to buy lighting. What one artist said struck me as eminently sensible: He buys all his lighting at Home Depot, because if anything goes wrong at the show, he can find a store nearby for replacement parts.
This was something to consider: Tempting as the gorgeous designs might be, special-order lighting of any kind introduces the risk of having a malfunctioning light for the duration of a show.
Another artist on the ACRE online forum said he buys his lights from Lowes. It probably doesn’t matter which big-box store one chooses, as long as there’s one in every city.
Since I was new to trade shows and this was to be my first lighting kit, I resisted choosing from the many good suppliers on the web. I settled on the limited but attractive selection at Lowes. A side benefit of this was that my choices were comfortably narrowed.
Within the category of halogen lighting, you can get either track lights or stem-mounted lights (with arms extending outward). I went with track lights. This was partly because the stem lights I found on the web were relatively expensive and Lowe’s didn’t offer them, and partly because with track lights I could have one cord instead of several hanging down.
The Lowes lighting salesperson was helpful in putting together a full package from the track lighting on display and in stock. I decided on four, two-foot tracks to keep the size of my shipping boxes down. Here’s a rundown of what I bought:
· 4 two-foot track sections, Portfolio brand, black finish, Item #225678. Each section holds 2 lights, for a total of 8. Total: $23.12
· 8 Flared Gimbal Track Lights, Portfolio brand, Item #120673, with a satin chrome finish for a contemporary look. They are easy to attach to the track by following the directions. Total: $80.76
· 8 halogen bulbs, Par 20, 50-watt, for bright, crisp light. I bought several floodlights and a couple of spotlights. The bulbs are very packable, at a little over 3” long and 2.5” in diameter. Total: $60.00
· 2 Miniature Straight Connectors by Portfolio, Item #120716, for joining two of the track sections end to end. The idea is to have only one cord to plug in from a row of four lights. Total: $5.92.
· 2 Cord and Plug Sets, Portfolio brand, Item #120827, to power track from a standard AC wall outlet. I connected these to the end of the two of the track sections by unscrewing the covering on one side of the track. Total: $17.06
· Various Multi-Purpose Ties (cable ties), by Catamount, for attaching tracks to booth pipes. Total: $5.00
· 2 heavy-duty extension cord/power strips – 14-gauge, 15-feet, with three outlets each, Woods brand, from Lowe’s, Item #170224, model 82965. Total: $22.00
Grand total: $213.86
The Gimbal lights I chose only accept a 50-watt, PAR 20 bulb, which made it easy to pick out the bulbs. So in this case, the fixture drove the choice of bulb, not the other way around.
According to the Bulb Photometrics page at Contractors Choice Lighting, a PAR 20, 50-watt halogen flood bulb will emit a beam of light with a 5’4” diameter when it reaches 10 feet away. It offers about 12 foot-candles worth of light at 10 feet away from the bulb (a foot-candle is the level of illumination on a surface one foot away from a standard candle.)
For the sake of comparison, a PAR 30 beam offers a diameter of more than 8’ at 10 feet away, and you still get about 14 foot-candles at that distance. What happens if you notch it up to a 75-watt bulb? You get a lot more foot-candles (38) at 10 feet away. This suggests that larger trade-show booths might want to take advantage of higher PAR and higher watt bulbs.
All together, the track lighting system I chose uses 400 watts of electricity. This left me another 100 watts to add specialty or accent lighting to my booth, while still remaining at the 500-watt limit.
Cords, Plugs and Hanging Lights
The Las Vegas Convention Center has very strict rules for cords, plugs, and hanging lights.
The two-pronged, 18-gauge cords that the manufacturer has attached to your lights are acceptable (leave the UL tags and labels intact). These lighting cords cannot be plugged into the convention center outlet, however. Instead, you must plug them into a three-pronged, heavy duty, 14-gauge extension cord – or a breaker strip with a 14-gauge cord. You can then plug that 14-gauge extension cord into the convention center outlet.
A 14-gauge extension cord is capable of handling 1,825 watts. It’s helpful to read the brief extension-cord sizing and safety information on the web pages of the Underwriters Laboratories (www.ul.com/consumers/cords.html) and the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service ([http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FY800]) before purchasing a cord.
Bruce Baker suggests the cord be 20 feet with six outlets, and that it include a cord reel. I couldn’t find this type of cord at Lowe’s, so I decided on two 15-foot, heavy-duty, 14-gauge extension cord/power strips, each offering three outlets. If you have a larger booth, you can find a 25-foot cord with three outlets at Lowe’s.
There are so many different approaches to hanging lights, and so many variables to consider, that it could be a topic for another article. In general, you can hang or clip lights onto a cross bar or onto the “hard walls” of your display if you have them. Depending on the rules of a particular trade show and the size your lighting system, you may be permitted to attach the lights to the booth’s existing pipe and drape.
Since my booth design does not include my own walls, my lights will attach either to the existing pipe or to a cross bar. Cable ties (commonly called “zip ties”) appear to be tool of choice for attaching tracks to the pipes or bars, and even for attaching additional cross bars to existing pipe and drape. One artist I know uses Velcro strips, followed by cable ties to secure the attachments. There are a few entire websites for cable ties. One of them is http://www.cabletiesplus.com .
I purchased Multi-Purpose Ties from Home Depot. They can bundle 4 inches in diameter, withstand temperatures up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, and hold up to 50 lbs.
Accent Lighting: LEDs
There are many ideas for accent lighting – although a fair treatment of the topic is beyond the scope of this article. Light-emitting diode (LED) lighting is one technology that is experiencing breakthroughs and growing fast. It takes many LEDs to equal the light output of a 50-watt bulb, and LEDs are fairly expensive, so LEDs aren’t ready for prime time when it comes to lighting a whole booth.
There are several close-up applications for LEDs, however, that are worth looking into now. An example is the in-counter light bar sold by MK Digital Direct at http://www.mkdigitaldirect.com (at a whopping $175 per foot). The more affordable MK Sparkle Light Pocket ($30) is a portable device that has extra long-life of over 100,000 continuous hours and promises to give jewelry “maximum sparkle and scintillation.”
The Nexus mini LED light system (www.ccl-light.com), meanwhile, offers a lot of illumination for its size – a puck shape not much bigger than a quarter. The company says it is for direct display lighting of crystal and glass, and it can even be submerged in water. The light is attached to a 12’ cable that ends in a plug, and has “mode switch” with seven different color choices. Unfortunately, white is not one of the color choices, and at $25 it’s a bit expensive. Still, a few of these lights combined with room lighting could draw viewers into your booth and toward your most dramatic displays.
LEDS also include tube lights, flexible lights, linear lights, and bulbs. Superbright LEDs (www.superbrightleds.com/edison.html ) has a collection of 120-volt screw-in LED bulbs for accent and other low-lighting applications, as well as a host of other fascinating products such as “plant up-light fixtures.”
At this writing, the search was still on for accent lighting to give my booth an extra special glow. Stay tuned for a future article on the results.
The following list is not an endorsement, but rather a starting point for research on lighting systems, cable ties, and accent lighting.
http://www.ccl-light.com – inexpensive and many choices, has “Bulb Photometrics” page to help determine how much light and what kind you want from a bulb
http://www.direct-lighting.com – stem-mounted and track lights
http://www.usalight.com – large selection of lighting and bulbs
http://www.bulbs.com – quick visual comparison of PAR bulbs (in halogen section)
http://www.cabletiesplus.com – Cable (zip) ties for securing track lights to pipe
http://www.mkdigitaldirect.com – LED lights for jewelry cases
http://www.american-image.com/products/lights/lights.html – a nice selection and visual layout of stem-mounted and other lighting (but not cheap)
http://www.brightmandesign.com/products/wash-super.html – good technical information and images of lights set-ups for trade shows; several stem-mounted clip-on designs
http://www.superbrightleds.com – LED accent lighting, including screw-in bulbs and light bars