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Building Your Building Wraps Business

The Ins and Outs of Making, Marketing, and Managing Building Wrap Graphics

By Thomas Franklin

Building wraps are universally recognized as an attention grabber, attracting eyeballs to their enormous facades with an almost magnetic intensity. But pedestrians aren’t the only ones noticing, many sign shops and digital service bureaus are eyeing up the mega-graphics as a means to reap mega-profits.

For all the excitement that surrounds building wraps, it’s not an endeavor to be embarked upon lightly, service providers say. Yet for all their manifest challenges, wraps can, if marketed properly, offer a healthy return on investment (ROI).

Cost Conscious
Neither the hardware nor the consumables for producing wraps are cheap, and the additional manpower for installation or sub-contracting costs further adds to expenses.

Even before hardware considerations, there is a simple—and often intractable —issue of how much physical space you can devote to the production and assembly of building wraps. Since they’re typically printed in discrete panels which are later sewn and welded together, floor space is critical.

Hobart, Indiana-based Point Imaging learned this lesson first hand. In their original 6,000 square foot facility, they could not assemble or inspect the final graphics in-house, according to assistant marketing manager, Marco Perez. Point Imaging’s new home is more spacious, at 33,000 square feet and has given the company the ability to print, finish, and lay-out the full print to inspect it for drop-outs and perform general proofing before the work rolls out the door.

"The new space has really helped us improve our quality control," Perez says. "We can now lift the banner to a light wall to proof it."

On the hardware end, only grand format printers designed to tackle mesh are really efficient and will minimize the assembly work, states Josh Bevans, chief technology officer, Design to Print/dtpXpress. You can expect to pay over $200,000 for the printer alone and the mesh kits are typically optional accessories.

"We produced wraps before we bought a 16-foot printer, but it just wasn’t as efficient," Perez adds. "Six-foot or smaller printers can do it, but it’s tough," agrees Bevans.

"Mesh is a really tricky material to print on, so you have to be really careful in your choice of printer," Bevans notes. The ink will pass through the material so the media either needs to be backed or the printer requires specialized receptacles—mesh kits—to collect the ink and prevent it from pooling and damaging your hardware.

The mesh media itself is expensive, a roll could cost between $500 and $1,000. "You have to be realistic about the costs," Bevans states. "It took us six months to use our first roll of mesh. Now I have $25,000 worth of it in my shop."

Since wraps are printed in panels, assembly is another cost factor. "There’s a lot of finishing involved," Bevans notes. Assembling the wrap entails the use of a welder and industrial sewing machines. Design to Print uses two sewing machines from Consolidated Sewing Machines, Corp. "They look like they were built in 1900. They’re ruthless machines," enthuses Bevans. Point Imaging uses the Triad welder from Sinclair Equipment Co.

After the wrap is stitched, welded together, and proofed, it needs to be packaged. FedEx has yet to invent the 100-foot envelope, so wraps require several workers to accordion fold them, notes Jon Zinsmeyer, founder and president, San Francisco-based The Big Print, LLC.

"There is a lot of material and it’s heavy; it can easily weigh hundreds of pounds," Zinsmeyer says. "It often takes up to eight people to handle and fold them."

Perhaps the most daunting is the installation. Design to Print operates in Utah and, "has a good supply of mountain climbers," willing to scale buildings and hang the wrap, Bevans states. "Heck, I’d do it myself."

The Big Print, Design to Print, and Point Imaging all have in-house installation teams, but will often rent specialized equipment for specific jobs. Hanging a wrap typically requires grommets, cable, reinforced webbing, and tools to penetrate the building’s exterior and patch the concrete when it’s time to remove the wrap.

Profit Potential
If the expense side of the ledger looks daunting, can wraps really be profitable? The short answer: yes—you wouldn’t see many if they weren’t. Of course, there’s a caveat. Proper execution and an intimate understanding of your client’s needs are essential. Experience doesn’t hurt either.

The key to making money on building wraps is not selling square footage, but selling a service, Perez says. There are multiple elements to a building wrap beyond production, such as finishing, installation, maintenance, and removal. Factored together, the whole must be sold as more than the sum of its parts. "It’s not like selling a billboard. You sell a service, not a commodity, and not just square footage," Perez adds.

How do you put a price on experience? On knowing that when the wind builds to 50mph gusts, your wrap will hold—or won’t; and on knowing not only that the colors will pop, but will keep popping long after its been drenched with sun and rain for months on end.

"We sell a total solution," Zinsmeyer notes. "Many clients have never done a building wrap before, or maybe they’ve done one five years ago and that account rep has moved on, so we do a lot of hand-holding." Zinsmeyer says that since his firm handles the job soup-to-nuts, with an install team with years of experience, the response from clients has been excellent, and has catalyzed more sales.

"When you start, wraps are not profitable," Bevans adds. "It takes a while to ramp up profitability." After ten years and a growing nationwide network of accounts, Bevans counts his company among the few in the country that successfully execute in the building wraps market.

Wraps have been one element in Point Imaging’s rapid growth. Not only has the company moved to larger digs, but has doubled its staff—from 25 to 50 employees—in three years, Perez notes. Over the same time, its building wraps business has grown from one to five percent of its business. "We are now marketing the service heavily in all of our collateral," Perez adds.

For The Big Print, building wraps account for 20 to 30 percent of the company’s grand format business, Zinsmeyer says. "The profitability advantage comes in how quickly you can produce your square footage. The margins may not be as good [as other products], but if you can fabricate and assemble quickly, then that turnaround time helps the bottom line."

Building wraps are a manpower intensive production and, "it does slow down work at that facility," when work is in progress, Zinsmeyer adds.

Not every firm can successfully produce and market building wraps. Behind those monster graphics lies a myriad of challenges—some routine, others daunting.

There are logistical hurdles. Successfully printing on mesh requires a good deal of experience, Bevans says. It’s not enough to configure your printer for dealing with the ink that passes through the mesh. It’s knowing how to produce powerful colors despite the porous surface area. Since mesh typically surrenders about forty percent of its surface to pores to allow the wind to pass through, you need to compensate for the reduced printable area in your printer’s RIP to ensure the highest quality colors, Bevans notes.

"You have to know your ink. It’s not about making the colors darker, but making them pop," he adds.

Zinsmeyer notes that he chooses mesh on the basis of how long the graphic is expected to hang outdoors. Short term wraps hung in locales with light weather can afford to have mesh with fewer or smaller pores—and hence slightly stronger colors.

Perhaps the most daunting challenges associated with building wraps are those over which digital printers exercise the least control—Mother Nature and Uncle Sam. The former can be a menace not simply at installation, but during the life of the sign as well. The later typically conspires to thwart projects at the eleventh hour.

"You have to have calm wind and pray you don’t have any large storms," says Brandon O’Brien, solution consultant, Point Imaging.

"We over-engineer our wraps, so they can withstand really strong winds, like 50 miles per hour," Zinsmeyer notes.

Most printers have their own personal horror stories about work that was completely printed and minutes from installation that was nixed by a government official. Bevans recalls how he had a job lined up with tens of thousands of dollars worth of material ordered, only to have the city pull the permit.

"A city official had been out of town when the rest of the city council agreed to the project. When the official returned, he nixed it," Bevans states.

To the extent it can be controlled, ensuring that your clients understand the local zoning laws, have filed the necessary permits, and secured the necessary permissions from building owners or associations can go a long way toward eliminating potential bureaucratic hassles.

Even with all the challenges, wraps are indeed rewarding work. "We did a 360-degree project for Ikea. I rented a helicopter to videotape it; it was awesome," Zinsmeyer recalls. His firm also completed a job for Microsoft at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) tradeshow in May 2006. As part of a large job that included creation of the, "world’s longest lenticular banner," The Big Print created a 120x40-foot building wrap to adorn the exterior of the Los Angeles convention center and promote Microsoft’s forthcoming Gears of War video game.

Zinsmeyer worked with an exhibitor company that does all of Microsoft’s trade show graphics and with which his firm enjoyed a close relationship. The Big Print didn’t need to bid on the E3 job, he states, "but they keep us in check, our prices have to be competitive."

The company produced all the graphics for the E3 show in under a month, a process that was expedited by the design company. "We usually don’t have artwork this good," Zinsmeyer says. "Since this was a video game—with tremendous graphics—a lot of the vector information was in the file."

The Microsoft wrap was printed on a VUTEk 5330 grand format printer using Verseidag seemee Mesh Premium media. The Big Print was not required to install the wrap as the LA Convention Center has the necessary installations for hanging signage and a contract with union installers.

Point Imaging recently completed a difficult job wrapping two sides of a parking garage in downtown Chicago for a local real estate management firm. "Besides the obvious issue of the daytime traffic in the area, we had to deal with the Windy City being true to its name," O’Brien says. "This was for a long-time client so we had already proven ourselves; the bidding process was quick and fair."

The staging, 12,000 square feet worth of wrap, and installation were all done within a one-week time frame from the moment the proof was signed off on, O’Brien relays. The firm used mesh media from UltraFlex with a VUTEk 5330 printer. The panels were welded with a Sinclair Triad Hot-wedge welder.

"We had eight men on the job and rented three 50-foot power swing stages on the long side of the building for the 150-foot long banner and two stages for the shorter side at 90 feet long. The installation took three days," O’Brien concludes.

Design to Print completed a job in May for a Nevada amateur golf tournament. The company had to produce four 10x50-foot wraps for a gazebo with just five business days to turn it around, Bevans says. That, and the company’s in house design team was tasked with creating the art. "It took six designers. We did it from top to bottom." The themed wraps were swapped out each day for four days with Bevan’s team on-site for the daily installation and removal.

Design to Print keeps its media selection close to the vest, but used the VUTEk 5330 UltraVu to create the banners—which were seamless and did not require stitching. They were edge-welded for reinforcement, Bevans adds.

A Careful Entrance
Design to Print, Point Imaging, and The Big Print have all made successful leaps into the building wrap market. And so can you, but it is important to understand the logistics of it all. Floor space, consumable and hardware costs, and installation challenges are just a few of the hurdles to consider. Be sure to fully educate yourself and your staff and you will be well on your way to a healthy ROI.

Jul2006, Digital Output

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