The first time I came face-to-face with pipe and drape was in a very old ballroom of Hotel Syracuse in 1970. It was the first month of what would become a 42-year career in the events and exhibition industry. My boss and careerlong mentor, Rod Geer, removed his suit jacket and tie and then taught me how to erect the pipe and drape we would need to frame the association’s small annual trade show.
I knew then that I would come to hate pipe and drape. It was so tacky. My hands were black with the strange dust that coated every single piece of pipe in minutes. Four decades later, pipe and drape still have not changed for the better.
On my many trips abroad to represent the global exhibition industry, I was delighted to see how neat, tidy and professional exhibit stands in other nations look compared to our flea market-appropriate pipe and drape. Most first-time international exhibitors who come to U.S. shows are aghast when they see our pipe and drape for the first time. I’ve heard it said in French (Il est si moche), in German (Es ist so hasslich) and in Spanish (Es tan feo). Any way you say it, it is still so ugly.
In the old days, U.S. trade shows were staged in unattractive concrete and cinder-block structures—basically four walls, a high ceiling and a concrete floor. They were poorly lit as well. Today, however, many of the purpose-built convention centers are artworks themselves. It’s sad that we still wrap our trade shows in the same shabby pipe and drape even though most exhibitors spend enormous sums of money to construct and display booths that will attract visitors with their breathtaking designs.
Most of the people involved in the U.S. trade show industry don’t know much about the history of pipe and drape. Everyone with whom I’ve spoken had no idea that pipe and drape was introduced to the exhibition industry in the U.S. in 1919. With the exception of pipe and drape, every invention introduced in 1919 has evolved in the time since. The only change to pipe and drape in the 100 years since its introduction is that the shabby drapes are now flameproof thanks to Chicago’s McCormick Place fire in 1967 that reduced the building to rubble.
It’s not only that pipe and drape is visually unsatisfying, it’s also environmentally unsound. Drapes need to be cleaned regularly. That dumps millions of tons of detergent into our watershed, and millions of gallons of water are wasted in the process at a time when water has become a precious commodity.
There are more reasons to replace pipe and drape: An unintended consequence is that it creates a caste system in which exhibitors whose space is defined by pipe and drape are viewed less favorably by visitors than exhibitors who have purchased 20-foot-by-20-foot or larger spaces and filled them with custom-designed exhibits. 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. Pipe and drape deconstructs whatever equalizer show organizers might have in mind for their events.
Finally, pipe and drape encourages and conceals pilferage and theft. It’s easy to reach through a drape seam and remove valuables from the back of a nearby booth. It happens every day and hundreds of times because of this security gap.
Let’s get rid of pipe and drape and replace it with a booth system of which we can all be proud. Isn’t it time to toss out an idea that may have worked well in 1919 but is long overdue for replacement?