Innovation Exhibits Diversifies During Pandemic

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Bergen Giordani, co-owner of One Hot Cookie, had only seen pictures of her newly decorated “cookie trailer” before she arrived at Innovation Exhibits to check it out in person.

She was pleased with what the company did with the 1956 trailer when she saw the results Tuesday.

“It’s like a brand-new cookie camper,” said Alexis Santangelo, Innovation Exhibits account manager.

“It’s just better than I was anticipating,” Giordani said. “It looks amazing.”

Bergen Giordani and the One Hot Cookie cookie trailer.

Vehicle wraps represent just one example of the broadened product lines Innovation Exhibits now offers since the coronavirus pandemic forced it to pivot. In addition to its core services, the company has added print shop and graphics capabilities that include vehicle fleet graphics, in-house graphic design and in-house fabrication.

Innovation Exhibits celebrated its rebranding and expansion of product lines during an open house and ribbon-cutting Wednesday.

The company’s core business, manufacturing trade show displays, evaporated with the cancellation of large public events because of the limits imposed on mass gatherings. Trade show exhibits the company makes range from tabletop pieces to 40-foot-by-50-foot displays that are trucked across the country for its clients.

Business “basically stopped in one day,” said Steven Gable, who founded the company about 27 years ago. In March 2020, a Pittsburgh-based client had been in town to preview a booth manufactured for an upcoming event when the call came that the show had been canceled, he recalled.

The trade show and live event industry was among the first to feel the brunt of the pandemic, Santangelo said.

“Trade shows started to cancel. Our clients started to pull out of shows,” said Santangelo, who also is Gable’s daughter. “Even if the shows were still happening, they decided not to attend.”

On hand for the ribbon-cutting Wednesday were Eric Moore, Justin Gable, Alexis Santangelo, Steven Gable, Monica Gable, Fred Hively, Teddy Cruz and Peter Roe.

One of the early moves the company made was to purchase a Colex router and cut table, which allowed the company to move into manufacturing hygiene shields for use in restaurants, bars, physicians’ offices, municipal buildings and other settings.

“We supplied a lot of local and regional clients with those shields,” Santangelo remarked.

“We thought that was a good way to go and pivot,” Gable said. “We didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. We really didn’t have much of a choice.”

The router table can cut various rigid substrates, said Justin Gable, production manager and one of Steven Gable’s sons. In addition to manufacturing the hygiene shields, it is used to make signs, graphics and dimensional letters.

“We have the capability to knife cut vinyl, cardboard [and], different plastics,” he said. A rotary head on it will cut rigid substrates of up to two inches, as well as aluminum.

The machine also provided the company the capability to fabricate frames for desk shields for Boardman schools, Steven Gable said. “Now we’re fabricating some displays for one of our bigger customers,” he said.

Making the risky investment of purchasing the Colex machine and expanding fabrication capabilities “helped us get through when so many other businesses suffered greatly,” said Monica Gable, vice president and Steven’s wife.

“We saw a need, pivoted and provided solutions to customers that helped them get through a very trying time, and we feel fortunate to have done that,” she continued.

The company subsequently moved into offering vehicle wraps last fall, Steven Gable said.

The printer used for the wraps “can make all kinds of signs,” as well as vinyl banners, Santangelo noted. Innovation Exhibits had always done signage and graphics, mainly to support its trade show clients.

“Through the course of the past six to eight months, we’ve really switched out focus to our print shop’s specific capabilities – exterior and interior signage – and then we saw a need for vehicle wraps and everything from spot graphics to full wraps,” she said. The addition of the vehicle-wrap work spurred Innovation Exhibits to hire an in-house graphic designer, bringing in house work that previously had been outsourced.

The pandemic forced the company to downsize from 12 employees before the shutdowns to five employees. It has since rebounded to eight, and Santangelo said she expects employment to be back at pre-pandemic levels soon.

Giordani, who had worked with Innovation Exhibits before, brought the cookie camper to the company after she and her daughter and business partner, Morgen Chretien, decided the camper “needed a ‘glow up,’ as Morgen likes to say,” she recalled.

“While we always recognize the importance of supporting small and family-owned businesses, this past year really taught us how important it is,” she said. “We love the family dynamic that Innovation has and it’s something that we aspire to grow to.”

As pandemic restrictions are eased, Innovation Exhibits is looking to reenergize its core business as it expands its new product lines.

“We’re hopeful that we’re going to get back to some shows in the summer and fall. We’re starting to get some requests from clients on proposals and estimates for planning purposes,” Santangelo said. “What their shows might look like we’re still uncertain, but we are starting to think about them.

Steven Gable reported he fielded two calls recently, both from clients discussing upcoming trades shows.

“We’re going to start off with smaller shows and it’s going to be a slow start,” he acknowledged.

Santangelo said she anticipates a full recovery later this year. “Definitely, 2021 should be very exciting for our industry to get a lot of people back to work,” she said.

“It has been challenging and yet ultimately rewarding to expand into new areas,” Monica Gable said. “Innovation has had a rebirth in some new and exciting ways and is allowing us to serve even more wonderful companies.”

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.