Inflatable-Sign Providers Help Blow Up Customer Bottom Lines

A look at providers of air- and gas-filled signage

Ever since its 1783 invention by French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, the hot-air balloon has fascinated. It provides passengers with the most similar experience possible to a bird in flight, and it’s the centerpiece of festivals and celebrations from Albuquerque, NM to Asheville, NC, and beyond.
Tethered to the ground or a structure, yet still satisfying people’s innate tendency to look up and admire floating objects, inflatable signs have become an increasingly popular method for providing advertising, promotion or crowd-pleasing event graphics. Three shops, whose core business comprises inflatable signage, provided background about their businesses, and some production details. In one instance, a vendor and its client helped convince a city to revise code to allow inflatable signage.
Perhaps subcontracting inflatable signage as a value-added service will boost interest for a store grand opening or special event. Bear in mind that the onus increasingly rests on signshops to provide more than mere signs – rather, you’re obliged to provide comprehensive, site-graphic solutions.
In 1996, Drake Diamond founded Tubeworks Inc., which offered Skydancers inflatable stick figures and signs. Seven years later, he retired, and his son, Chris Austin, assumed leadership of the company and changed its name to Skydancers (Calabasas, CA). In addition to the traditional, blowing stick figures often seen at car dealerships, custom shaped and branded figures have become popular for concerts, special events, store grand openings and related functions.
“For most of our projects, we look for fabric vendors based in the USA,” Austin said. “This helps with quality control and delivery turnaround. Most inflatables are fabricated with ¾-oz., ‘rip-stop’ nylon, which is stitched with thick reinforcement threads in a cross-hatching pattern to make it highly tear-resistant. For sections that require decoration, the shop usually uses 5- to 7-oz. vinyl, which it decorates with a solvent-ink printer. For projects that require a lightweight installation, Skydancers will print on flag material with a dye-sublimation printer.
“Years ago, we used rubberized inks, which bonded well with the material, but weren’t very flexible and limited the level of detail,” he said. “Inkjet printing has brought our designs to a whole new level. We can create photorealistic depict-ions on projects up to 25 ft. tall.”
For standard inflated graphics, Skydancers attaches the fabric to the fan with Velcro®; Chris said
the entire contraption only weighs approximately 50 lbs. For larger, rooftop inflatables, which are immobile, they’re fastened with webbing straps and rope. (These installations weigh several hundred pounds.) Most installations contain an 18-in.-diameter fan that’s designed especially for inflatable-graphic operation.
Skydancers created a strong partnership with the NHL’s Nashville Predators. David Freeman, the owner of the expansion team that began play in 1998, has encountered several obstacles during its existence. Nashville resides deep in the heart of the football-obsessed Southeast, and is known as Guitar Town, and most residents are far more familiar with pigskins and picks than pucks.
The team’s event-presentation director contacted Skydancers days prior to the team’s first game in
the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ opening round. Austin said, “Usually, the timetable on this type of project is two to three weeks. This time, however, we only had three or four days to complete the job. But the project’s success made the crunch more than worth it.”
The 25-ft.-tall inflatables were decked out with jerseys, helmets and pants that replicated the team’s home uniforms. Chris quipped, “Among other things, I think of us as a clothing company for giants.” The inflatables were front and center for a major fan-engagement event. The team staged a junk car near the entrance of the Bridgestone Arena, its home stadium, that was bedecked with the colors of the Minnesota Wild, the playoff opponent. Fans were invited to pound the car with a sledgehammer, and many happily obliged.
However, the project met with some resistance. Unbeknownst to the team, the city of Nashville had a zoning-code ordinance that forbade inflatables and other wind-swayed signage. Fortunately, Nashville Metro Council member Darren Jernigan was sympathetic to the promotional opportunities such signage could provide and presented a bill that would permit inflatables (with a proviso that they couldn’t be used within 1,000 ft. of residences, and they must be dismantled before nighttime). Despite objections from the city’s planning department (big surprise), the Council unanimously approved the bill.
Austin is in the midst of his second, two-year term as president of the 88-member Inflatable Adver-
tising Dealers Assn.
(IADA); he was appointed at the annual IADA convention in February. About the industry’s outlook, he said, “One of the biggest challenges is the proliferation of overseas vendors with poor-quality products, which taints our whole industry to anyone who’s had a bad experience with them. Some city officials have tried to ban inflatables because they view them as eyesores. For those providers who follow IADA standards, it’s not an issue.”
On a positive note, he sees increasing partnerships between inflatable providers and signshops. Austin said he’s attended sign conventions and visited many franchises to educate owners about inflatables’ benefits.
“Inflatables are signs!” he said.
Bbi Displays
Bbi Displays (Santa Monica, CA), a division of Billboard Boats Inc., was founded in 2002. The company holds the patent on an inflatable, airtight A-frame display. William Barlow, the company’s president and CEO, also holds a patent for a flow-through, ballast system that provides optimal stability amidst brisk coastal winds for water-mounted installations.
The frames comprise a tough, 840-denier, nylon shell that encases a series of what Eric Wickland,
bbi’s sales director, calls heavy-duty, PVC bladders. Because of the multi-chamber design, in the event of a leak, only the individual, interior bladder requires replacement instead of the entire system. Tear Aid® repair tape suffices for most repairs. A CE-approved (CE is a European standard of compliance), portable electric-air pump, powered by a 110- or 220V electric unit, powers the inflation blower.
Wickland said ordinances that govern bbi’s signs may vary widely by city, state or country. An inflatable pulled by a vessel is considered an extension of it, and isn’t subject to permits or regulation. When inflatables are anchored in water or secure on land, they’re generally in private-property areas, such as marinas or lakes within resorts. Except at special events, installation usually isn’t permitted in public waters because they could present navigational hazards.
Although demand has remained steady in the U.S., markets abroad, particularly Latin America, remain more fertile. Wickland also noted that governments embrace them for public-service announcements and various, civic- and tourism-related messages.
Many companies who use them for advertising are multinational corporations, such as McDonald’s, Red Bull and Coca-Cola, that want to build their brands globally. National and regional banks also target these audiences. And, because sunbathers tend to be affluent and younger, mobile-phone carriers are also frequent bbi customers for international installations. In the U.S., the California Dept. of Boating and Waterways has been a bbi customer for four years; the agency uses anchored signs to promote its clean-water programs.
Thus far, the largest single-unit inflatable billboard (a world record for the largest, airtight, inflatable billboard, Wickland said) the company has produced spanned 72 x 14 ft. It was built from six, modular, 12 x 14-ft. units. He said the system may be used to create billboards several hundred feet long if desired. The company uses a designated source to produce its banner graphics; customers may also follow bbi specs and produce their own. Mesh banners are preferred for outdoor installations because they allow the wind to move freely. For additional visual impact after sunset, the company offers lightweight, waterproof LEDs as a value-added option.
Of course, signs that focus around sports attract attention. To honor the Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 NBA championship (and appeal to the many basketball fans who subscribe), El Nuevo Dia, a Puerto Rican multimedia outlet, ordered an inflatable sign that featured Jose Barea, a Puerto Rican-born member of the team. For installation in Lagos, Nigeria, Coca-Cola ordered a sign promoting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was held in South Africa.
Mobile Airships
Founded in 1994, Mobile Airships (Brantford, ON, Canada) manufactures various types of inflatable advertising, with an emphasis on radio-controlled blimps. Dan Speers, the company’s executive VP, said its most popular version has been its toy, radio-controlled blimp: “More than 400,000 of them have been sold, and it’s currently out of stock.”
Typically, the company develops custom graphics for each project from the client’s provided logo. Speers said, “We sometimes have to research what type of advertising the customer has done to make sure we maintain a consistent theme. We generate most graphics from .JPEG or Adobe Illustrator files, which we refine with Photoshop and Illustrator. Designers use CAD software to create custom shapes that require cut panels.”
Mobile Airships fabricates its projects from various materials: polyurethane, PVC, Mylar® poly-
ester resin and nylon, among others. He said polyurethane is much lighter and provides more lift when filled with helium, whereas PVC is more easily conformed to custom shapes, and is more durable under high pressure or when intricate seams are required to create a form. Most blimps can be tethered with a braided-nylon rope, but the weightiest installations require a Kevlar® core and winches to keep the inflatables aground.
For most projects, clients select removable banners that are either Velcro-attached for cold-air inflatables, or grommeted and tied for helium-filled installations. The company digitally prints banners with polyester material on its modified, solvent-ink printer when removable graphics are specified, and, when they’re permanent, considers the material and artistic complexity when deciding whether to paint or print.
For short-term installations, Mobile Airships will deploy a member of its crew to manage an installation. For long-term or traveling projects, Speers seeks operators to manage onsite executions. The company has produced inflatable environmental graphics for such famous acts as The Rolling Stones and former Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters.
“The same production company manages the tours for both performers,” Speers said. “For the Roger Waters tour, it was a challenge to figure out how to apply artwork to several 40-ft.-tall, inflatable pigs. We ultimately decided to paint them with graffiti – some in English, some in Spanish, some in French – from head to toe. They take up a lot of space before deflating, and we had to make sure they didn’t touch each other and smear the graphics. Our warehouse looked like an oversized pig pen for months!”
He continued, “A common hurdle we encounter is the ad agency and the client they represent having a differing vision for the graphics. We often have to play referee in order to meet deadlines.”
Speers said sports teams are a common client, and, because every team in a given sport starts its season at the same time, these production demands – along with satisfying regular customers – require working on tight schedules.

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