Earlier this year, Jennifer Bowen and her colleagues started to see the barriers going up between their business, a St. Louis-based exhibit design and production company, and profit.
Travel bans. Prohibitions against large gatherings. Lack of incentive for companies to appear at trade shows even if they had been taking place.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swelled, the staff at PRO Expo Exhibits realized they would need to adjust their business model. Rather than close shop because of all of the obstacles they faced, they decided to try to produce barriers that would help businesses that were able to stay open.
And so, they launched a sister company, Temporary Protective Barriers, that designs and produces acrylic sneeze guard barriers to reduce the risk of virus transmission. As a result, while at least 31 million people in the United States were unemployed during the summer, Pro Expo has been able to keep its 10 employees on staff.
“Our goal this whole time with this business pivot has been to maintain our business, to maintain our staff, to maintain our workplace, so that when this is all past us, we can go right back to doing our trade show and event business,” said Bowen, an account manager at PRO Expo since 2008.
The St. Louis company is now part of an industry that has experienced significant growth during the pandemic. Craig Saunders, president of the International Association of Plastics Distribution, a trade group, told National Public Radio that at the start of the pandemic, demand increased by four times what the industry has experienced in the previous year.
Katherine Sale of Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, which studies global commodities markets, said a significant number of new companies — such as those producing the same type of plastic for the automotive and construction industries — also pivoted to enter the market.
“The main challenge is the level of demand, as it far outstrips production,” Sale said. “It is also a lengthy process to increase capacity, with long lead times on manufacturing equipment.”
Bowen said her company was able to make the switch in relatively easy fashion.
“On an event side, we’re going into a hall and building a structure and building walls and using hardware, and we can use those same materials in an office or another environment to help build temporary protective barriers,” she said.
In the crowded new market, Bowen said her company emphasizes its ability to create “custom elements that look like they truly belong in their spaces” rather than just off-the-shelf barriers.
Still, once they launched the venture, they had to increase production quickly, which proved to be challenging.
“If we are doing a trade show, you have weeks — sometimes months — to think about a plan of attack, and this was a pretty [hurried], turn-on-a-dime situation. What can we get our hands on quickly to be able to get these things out to the public? If someone wants a barrier for their office, they are not going to wait months for that,” said Bowen.
During the summer, with school districts preparing to reopen — or at least considering that possibility — the Temporary Protective Barriers staff saw an opportunity. One of Bowen’s colleagues reached out to the Ladue School District in suburban St. Louis.
Mike Noonan, the district’s director of facilities, said the company’s custom barriers were about a third more expensive than the standardized options he has seen at some grocery stores and restaurants.
“My thoughts are: These are expensive, but they are permanent, and I don’t think this issue is going to go away any time too soon,” said Noonan, who has worked for the district for two decades.
The district purchased more than $75,000 worth of barriers from the company, which is based in the Cortex Innovation Community coworking space in St. Louis. The company also has a storage space; its Midwest location benefits the company because it is able to easily store and ship exhibit properties to various parts of the country, Bowen said.
Temporary Protective Barriers staff entered the Ladue district’s 10 buildings and used a computer-generated program to size the necessary pieces for desks. They used those measurements to fabricate the barriers and then returned to install them in nurses’ offices, cafeterias, reception areas and counselors’ offices, among other areas.
The barriers, “along with handwashing stations,” were the two additions “that we were really focused on because they are first line of defense, basically,” Noonan said. “And I think it gives the staff a little more confidence that, when a person walks in to talk to them, they are not getting germs blown all over them during these conversations.”
Noonan said he was very pleased with the company’s installations and responsiveness to problems that emerged. But will the district actually need the barriers? When will students return to in-person learning? And if they do, for how long?
“I don’t know,” Noonan said in July. “I would love to say that it’s all going to be great; it’s all going to be wonderful, but every day, we are looking at a different approach, so I don’t really know. We have to be ready for whatever is acceptable when school starts.”
Meanwhile, Bowen said that despite the success of the new venture, it’s not an “equivalent revenue generator” to the exhibits business.
“I don’t know that I have talked to any company that has said, ‘Yep. We are making money hand over fist today.’ Everyone is experiencing economic challenges, whether that’s a decrease in sales or they have to decrease staff,” she said.
Bowen said she and her colleagues hope that people soon begin to gather again for trade shows.
“That’s where our heart really is,” she said. “It is a fun and always changing business, and no two shows are ever the same, no two situations are ever the same. You are constantly on your toes, trying to design and solve problems. I always say, ‘It’s like a giant puzzle.’ There are so many hands in the pot, and how do you get everyone to work together?”