Exhibit Concepts Small Business with Big Reach Hiding in Our Midst
By Mark Luedtke
Exhibit Concepts Incorporated (ECI) might be the biggest little business in Dayton nobody has ever heard of. The sign overlooking I-75 just north of I-70 can easily go unnoticed, and the building as seen from Falls Creek Drive is unremarkable. Few people ever see more, but those who turn down Crossroads Court get a different perspective – the ECI building is gigantic. Something big must be happening inside.
And it’s even more impressive from the inside. The small office area in the front housing the designers and managers obscures the vast workspace behind it where craftsmen manufacture the displays that are ECI’s bread and butter. Looking around that workroom, it’s easy to think that it extends to the back of the building. Easy, but wrong. Behind the work area resides an even more cavernous expanse which houses crates filled with all the past exhibits ECI has ever built in a warehouse reminiscent of the one which the Ark of the Covenant disappears into at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But what was a sawed-in-half Mercedes Benz doing in the manufacturing area?
The Exhibit Business
ECI was founded in 1978 in a 3,000 square foot bay in an industrial strip on Stanley Avenue to create exhibits for trades shows. In 1983 the company expanded its operations to include museum displays with a project for the African-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. Since then ECI’s operations have expanded to include corporate interiors and mobile marketing vehicles. Today ECI’s corporate customers number in the dozens including many well-known names such as Lexis-Nexis, Symantec (maker of Norton Internet Security), Teradata (a spin-off of NCR), Proctor & Gamble Pet Care (formerly Iams), and Dell. Their customers also include small organizations like the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi and the Allman Brothers Band Museum in Macon, Georgia.
Four exhibition industry businesses called Dayton home in 2000, but only ECI managed to successfully navigate the economic troubles of the last decade. But not unscathed. ECI suffered recession-driven workforce reductions in 2003 and 2009, but emerged as a powerful force in the exhibition industry. Vice President of Sales Jeff Korchinski attributes ECI’s successful navigation of troubled economic times to transitioning the company from a manufacturing-oriented company to a services-oriented company. “We realigned our account management structure and dedicated resources and teams to accounts. This allowed us to better understand their business and to proactively take on more and more responsibilities. For instance, we have arranged for ECI employees to work out of clients’ facilities, and attend weekly staff meetings at clients’ locations.” That dedication to becoming a part of the customer’s team is a focus of all the designers at ECI. Today ECI has 85 permanent employees, varying numbers of temporary employees for specific projects and recently opened a second center in Elgin, Illinois northwest of Chicago. ECI has exhibited on every continent except Antarctica. No wonder they need that 186,000 square foot building.
But what about that Mercedes? Steve Lowry, who heads up ECI’s museum division, deadpans as he shows off the car, “The 1979 Mercedes is for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Mercedes was the first to use computer chips in their anti-lock brakes.” A sly smile crosses his face. ECI does really cool projects.
Since exhibitions are staged in a 3D environment, the design process begins with 3D design. Senior Exhibit Designer Brian Ernst graduated from Alter High School and went on to study art at the Columbus College of Art and Design and then the Cleveland Institute of Art before returning to Dayton. He ran his own design company focusing on children’s environments from 2002 – 2005, but unhappy with the limited time available for actual design, he rejoined ECI to focus on design. He’s worked for or with ECI for 12 years.
Ernst gets excited when he talks about the unique projects he gets to design for ECI. He’s currently working on a unique classroom environment for pre-schoolers called the Early Scholars Academy for Region 2 in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Region 2 website describes the facility: “The ESA will feature 13 highly interactive, thematic discovery areas ranging from 400 to 900 sq. ft. and focusing on the themes of: polar, ocean, tropic, human body, animals, plants, travel, Earth and its elements, space, American frontier, Mayan temple, dinosaurs, and a literacy/technology center.” Ernst explains that the goal is to present a pre-school level curriculum, such as learning to count, in environments that will engage pre-school children.
Working closely with the pre-school administrators, Ernst begins by scouring the internet for elements to build into his initial visions for the classrooms. Then he assembles them into model rooms on his 3D workstation, gets feedback from the school staff and finally engages in a process of successive refinement to meet the client’s goals. The end result is beautifully detailed pictures of colorful rooms that would captivate any child and plenty of adults and specifications for construction. The classrooms include tents on an ice-covered plain, a submarine any Beatles fan would find familiar, a forest playscape, Indian tipis, dinosaurs and a giant globe of the Earth. Brian’s philosophy on his projects is to shoot for the stars and hope the client will pay for the moon. It certainly worked in this case.
When designing for children, Ernst likes to design the experience first then add in the curriculum second. For example, the inside of the submarine contains computer screens that appear to be windows. When the children enter the sub, the computer screens will simulate the sub diving underwater, and the children will be able to see fish out the windows. All this is designed to engage and entertain, but one of the curriculum points will be for the children to count the fish. ECI’s craftsman are currently building that submarine in the work area.
If Ernst seems to know a lot about children, it’s because he does. He says that the ECI designers are all big children so it’s easy for them to design exhibits children enjoy. He is also raising eight children with his wife.
Sometimes working so closely with clients can present unforeseen challenges. Recently Ernst was working late on the phone with Japanese clients from Symantec helping them set up an exhibit. He’d designed an open environment with computer screen presentations illustrating the dangers of identity theft, but the Japanese had re-staged the screens into tiny booths with two chairs pressed side by side. He feared that closeness would make attendees uncomfortable. After overcoming the cultural and language barrier, the Japanese clients assured him that for Japanese people, the booths were perfectly comfortable.
Once the 3D design is set, it’s time to fill in the details of the 2D surfaces. Graphic designer and Dayton native Dave Shurte graduated from Northmont High School before obtaining his Commercial Arts degree from Sinclair Community College. He works closely with his clients to understand the scope and the feel of the project, then he works with the 3D designers to get a feel for the general layout of the exhibit. After that he digs into the 2D design which he says “can include, but is not limited to, flat photo and text panels, backlit panels, graphic wraps, 3D lettering and wall murals.”
Over the years Shurte has worked with award winning artist and writer Sunni Mercer on multiple projects. Recently Mercer hired ECI to do a travelling exhibition called “The Measure of My Strength.” Mercer describes the exhibit in a press release: “The Measure of My Strength is an interpretive exhibition that includes large color images of 12 mixed media sculptures, photography, and narrative text panels. The ultimate goal is that the combined elements of art and education would encourage support for the ‘Swaziland Partnership.’ The goal of the Swaziland Partnership is to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland through the development of spiritual, compassionate, and educational resources.”
This project resonates with Shurte. He reports that 42 percent of the population of Swaziland have HIV/AIDS and that over 15,000 households have lost parents to the disease. “I guess the best part of my job, as in this case, is to help make a difference and to creatively tell the story. This is a story that needs to be told and I am honored to be a part of that.” Mercer sent Shurte photographs of sculptures she had created, pictures of Swaziland women and children
afflicted with AIDS and text to go with them, and he blew these up into panels with contrasting backgrounds and complementary colors to emphasize the source material. Because Shurte and Mercer have become friends while working together, he was able to quickly produce the quality product that keeps Mercer coming back.
Shurte recently completed another big project with a personal interest for him – the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. Originally housed in Admiral Nimitz’s childhood home, the museum contracted ECI when it wanted to expand. Since his father was in World War II and his mother was the first president of Dayton War Brides, he was honored to work on this project as well.
Shurte says the work is always interesting and challenging with something new to do everyday, but also it’s a lot of long hours. Somehow he puts in those long hours and finds time for his band, called Hood Hound, building sets and acting in local plays, and in 2003, he received a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities from Antioch College. He also takes an active interest in the Dayton Peace Museum, and he arranged to have ECI donate some museum pieces to the museum.
Maybe ECI succeeded because it transformed from a manufacturing orientation to a service orientation as Korchinski thinks, or maybe an exceptional design team exemplified by the talent and motivation of Ernst and Shurte would have carried the company regardless of business organization. One thing is indisputable: having these exceptional designers provide unique services to such diverse customers breeds success.
ECI recently expanded its business into mobile marketing platforms. In the current economic environment, clients find it valuable to take their marketing experience to potential customers instead of waiting for customers to come to them. One example of this is a box truck into which ECI built a display about donating blood that the Community Blood Center takes to local schools to educate school children.
One thing all the employees at ECI stressed was that every project is unique, and it seems that each new project is more challenging than the last. No wonder these creative people love their work.
Exhibit Concepts is located at 700 Crossroads Court., Vandalia. For more information, call (937) 890-7000 or visit online at www.ExhibitConcepts.com
Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@daytoncitypaper.com