Impressions: Sign Expo 2013

April 6, 2013 by Dave Haynes


The last couple of days have been very full ones, hanging out and looking around at the International Sign Association’s Sign Expo trade show in Las Vegas. I was there hanging out with a client and trying to assess whether this was s show and a crowd worth the attention, and a couple of days was enough to conclude that the old school sign industry is finally paying attention to the digital display side.

Here are my impressions:

Very big show – several multiples of Digital Signage Expo. The numbers I heard were 20,000-25,000 attendees, which is 5x DSE. They run the thing at the Mandalay Bay, which is soooo much nicer than the LVCC but also obscenely expensive. A dinky half bottle of water was $4.50 and snack bar coffee was, I think, $5. On the other hand, a bit of a walk to the casino got you to real restaurants for lunch, at least one with a patio outside (for those back home, it was 80 F or something yesterday … pfffft).

There was a much larger digital signage presence than I had expected to see. Samsung took the largest space and was the only big LCD guy there, but other companies with specific booths (not shared) included Stratacache, Christie Digital Managed Services, Ingram Micro, Black Box, Almo and several more I am struggling to remember.

Signagelive, Scala and Insteo were doing demos on Samsung’s smart signage solution – a product I think is ideal for the print market because the CPU is embedded and things can just hang on a wall and replace a print poster.

A company called VantageLED, from the LA-area, had a massive booth and tons of people there peddling its LED sign board and management software solution. Another company, called Caldera, had a substantial presence and was showing a digital sign software platform – Variable Display – I’d never heard about.

There was one of those education areas where a rotation of speakers get mike time to talk to whoever walks by and parks their butt. I did not see many of those sessions being particularly well attended, and the one I watched was a product pitch that would have gone way over the head of the dozen or so people who took it in. I heard the pre-show education day was very well attended, but also that the sessions done  by the usual suspects were generally canned and again way over the heads of the crowd.


The walk-up crowd was way better in Day 2, probably owing to the digital sign area being in the back 40 area with the man-lifts and usual back of show assortment of little guys. But once they started coming, they came in pretty good numbers. The common story I heard from printing companies was that their clients were asking about replacing printed work with digital, and they needed to start understanding and adopting.

Not too surprisingly, a lot of the questions were about menu boards. Many seemed to have small to medium sizes QSR clients who wanted to make the shift, and the print guys had no idea about how they could service that and hang on to that business.

What was interesting, to me, was there were at least three very large US print companies – direct and distributors – who are overtly in the digital signage business – with staff and distinct brands and plans. They don’t have software or hardware, but do have many of the other components needed to offer out a solution – including project management, deployment, retail design, drafting and digital creative teams. They also have decades of built-up ties and trust with big-time brands and retail banners. What they don’t have is experience and insight, but I’d argue a lot of the pro AV systems, software and display guys don’t offer much there either.

The bottom line there is that they see an opportunity and also a need to address an emerging part of their business that can either complement what they do now, or stop erosion as accounts switch from printed material to digital displays.

The other striking thing was the numbers of companies there with LED display products. It’s a sign show and billboards were really the first things to go from print to digital in a big way, but I didn’t expect to see dozens of vendors. There was no Barco or Yesco and I think I saw Daktronix with a teeny little booth, but there were numerous companies from China with very large booths and massive LED walls. I THINK – repeat think – there were as many LED companies at this show as I see at InfoComm.

Lots of the stuff was outdoor quality meant for longer distances, but I wandered over to one booth that was showing a 2 mm pixel pitch display. It was the first LED wall I’ve seen that you could stand immediately in front of and see crisp visuals. For context, most highway LED boards are 10-16 mm (or greater) that look fine from a distance but awful when viewed up close. The NanoLumens LEDs are, I believe, 6 mm (think they might also now have a 4).

They cost too much right now and the biggest LCDs are actually cheaper, but I can see how these would be applied in larger or odd shaped swaths of digital display inside and out.

So, the big question: Would companies that invested in this show this year see an ROI? Probably not. I saw a lot of people at booths doing emails and looking for anyone to chat to. But this is a massive industry and opportunity. The shift to digital will not be driven by what’s cool or by over-used, tortured terms like engagement and experience. It will happen because print company clients are getting asked whether some of what they do could be done better, quicker and cheaper using digital display. It can, and the smart print guys are starting to understand that. A year from now, many more will.

The show next year is in Orlando (yuck), and I have no idea how that affects numbers. If I were a marketing person for a software, display or deployment company, I’d look at investing in Sign Expo – but I’d also think very carefully whether I had a product and service that matched up with the buyer profile, and then whether my message would mean anything to the print people.  These folks don’t, for the most part, know what they are looking for – so the marketing has to be wildly different from, say, DSE.

Going to NAB on Monday, a show I have been to a couple of times. It will have even less of a digital sign presence, but have a LOT of technology that’s increasingly relevant to this sector.

The show wraps today, but I’m done. Breakfast with my friend Tom McGowan from Four Winds, and then four hours of launching golf balls into nearby backyards, pools and driveways – and possibly, maybe one or two fairways – at a Samsung event.

  1. Kevin Izatt says:

    Maybe an oversight but YESCO was at the show booth 4139. Maybe you did not make it around the show all the way?

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