Companies and event organizers use inflatables to grab public attention and promote their brands.
Although he now sells spaces in luxury subterranean survival shelters, Robert Vicino once focused his entrepreneurial spirit on loftier altitudes. He put a 90-foot King Kong on the Empire State Building and designed Otto the Autopilot for the farcical movie Airplane. Most of his 12 patents involve inflatables.
Mark Bachman went to work for Vicino in 1981 and now runs his own inflatables company, Bigger Than Life, in San Diego, Calif. He credits Vicino with inventing an inflatable billboard extension (with optional internal lighting) that brings a third dimension to the ubiquitous flat plane of outdoor advertising.
Bigger Than Life’s product line includes billboard extensions as well as custom replicas of products and characters, games, displays and costumes.
“You can have a very large, very dominant advertisement piece that packs up into a small shipping container and doesn’t cost much to transport because it’s light,” Bachman says.
Doron Gazit, the co-inventor of dancing inflatables (Fly Guys®), founded Air Dimensional Design Inc. in 1986. The North Hollywood, Calif.-based company sells and rents a range of products, including Hi-Lights™ (illuminated shapes for standing and suspended décor), walls, arches, tubes and spheres.
“Inflatables can be very big, but 99 percent of them are just air,” he says. “Because they are so light, they easily can be attached to ceilings, trees and structures. At the same time, they are simple to ship and store. Even at 15 feet in diameter, they can fit into a big shoebox; in our warehouse, we have about 1,500 inflatables.”
And, he adds, they are easy to set up.
“Any technician can do it easily,” he says. “The big ones maybe take two people.”
Robert Crocker, CEO of New Zealand-based Canvasland, notes yet another advantage: “Inflatables are more lifelike than most other forms of branding media; 3-D is always more dynamic than 2-D,” he says. “They also become interactive. A 2-D banner is just saying something that the viewer can stop and look at. Inflatables offer the opportunity to wrap the person in a total engagement experience.”
Canvasland makes a range of promotional inflatables as well as inflatable structures, outdoor cinema screens and obstacle courses for pools.
The effects of inflation
“We have a number of customers that offer event management to corporate customers,” Crocker says. “Inflatables are a great way to draw in crowds to an interactive activity with branding all over it.
“Most of our event-based inflatables are used in New Zealand’s main city centers. However, many of them tour for nationwide events, and some even go on international tours,” Crocker adds, noting as an example 5-foot-diameter cricket balls and correspondingly sized bats for the Cricket World Cup 2015.
Product replicas for fast-food chains and beer conglomerates are bread-and-butter business for Bigger Than Life, which relies strictly on sales.
“Car dealers rent inflatables; that’s not our market,” Bachman says. “Our work is on the high-end, high-quality replica for a relatively small number of people’s ideas—300 to 400 a year.”
X-Treme Creations has delved into spectacles with projects for the Olympic Games, World Cup, Tour de France, Live Nation concerts, Tomorrowland music festival and performance brands Red Bull and Clif Bar. The Belgium-based company sells and rents a range of inflatables, including product replicas, characters, arches, tubes, furniture and display products for point-of-sale and other retail applications.
“We have put semi-permanent inflatables on the roofs of shopping malls and factories located along major highways,” owner Dan Vandevoorde says. “Trade-show exhibition stand builders are including more and more inflatable elements, gaining efficiency in complex and amorphous shapes with limited manpower during installation and transport.”
Air Dimensional Design also has provided inflatables for premier events like World Cups, Super Bowls and Olympic Games, as well as for Fortune 500 companies, including Microsoft and Coca-Cola.
After more than 30 years in business, Gazit says, “I can’t say that I’ve fulfilled my dreams, because I never dreamed I would be doing special effects on such a huge scale in so many countries.
“We are starting to put inflatables on scaffolding around buildings under construction,” he adds. He even did so on ten 75-foot scaffolding towers brought in during pre-construction when Mall of America architect Jon Jerde and the Sussman-Prejza branding consultants firm hired him to draw media attention to the groundbreaking of a building complex
Primarily, Gazit’s company relies on monthly sales and rentals on a smaller scale—and, increasingly, for trade shows.
“Here the joke is that we love to do jobs wherever there is air,” he says.
Wrapping it up
When Gazit developed 60-foot dancing inflatables made of spinnaker ripstop nylon for the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games, he needed a fabric that was more flexible than the parachute ripstop nylon he had been using for his stationary tubes.
“It had to be very strong and light,” he says. “There’s a lot of air moving through dancing tubes.”
Although the nature of the ripstop nylon and PVC that his company uses has remained the same, Gazit says, “Over time, we have found better and better fabrics. I am always looking for one that is thinner and more translucent.”
“Materials have changed dramatically,” Bachman concurs. “They’ve gotten significantly stronger for their weight.
“We use different fabrics [including PVC and vinyl-coated nylon] for many reasons, including size of the inflatable, ability to digitally print on the material, and the quality of the printing. If it’s helium, it should have a urethane coating to hold gas. We talk about materials as heavy (for larger inflatables that may get dragged around) as being 10 to 14 ounces, lighter weight as 5 to 7 ounces, and helium in the 4-ounce range.
“Over the last 10 years, ink adhesion has become very good,” Bachman continues. “We used to put a clear coat on everything; that’s no longer necessary.”
X-Treme Creations mostly uses uncoated polyester, but Vandevoorde says, “Basically, any fabric that can be printed, cut, stitched or welded is fine. We sometimes combine inflatables with polystyrene for very detailed and small shapes.”
For most inflatables, Canvasland uses PVC, which Crocker says is constantly changing.
“Manufacturers are increasing their range of colors, additives in their coatings and base-cloth strength,” he explains. “As these changes are introduced, we have to be vigilant on the adhesion quality, because that is very important for inflatables.
“Most PVC fabrics are not airtight. Airtight inflatables require specialized fabrics,” he says. “And because we use airtight inflatables for swimming pools, we also need good chemical resistance,” he adds. “We source specialized fabrics from around the world—some out of Germany, Israel and Korea. We are investigating new fabrics for airtight inflatables and having some great success with EVA [ethylene vinyl acetate].”
Canvasland works with artists who airbrush inflatables and with print companies that provide screen and digital printing.
“Over the last few years, digital printing has made branding so much easier and offered so many more options to what graphics we can give customers,” Crocker says. He has his own idea about what the “perfect” material would be for inflatables:
“I want to find a lightweight, airtight fabric that is chemically resistant to oils and chlorine, made with a coating that is recyclable, and able to be assembled using a sewing machine-style welder.”
Bachman notes how technology has streamlined the manufacturing process—from the days when Bigger Than Life had an art department with a staff of 25 and designing began with a clay model, to today’s use of pattern-making software. Every step in hand application held the possibility of error that could magnify with each subsequent step.
“We went from digital with fingers to digital with 1s and 0s in computer keys,” Bachman says. “In some ways, it’s great—and in others, not so good. I was really proud of the work we did in the ’80s and ’90s; it was real art.”
Janice Kleinschmidt is a magazine editor and freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.
If digital printing signaled an evolution in inflatables, consider recent developments at Air Dimensional Design.
“We have created a remote-controlled RGB-LED system for inside inflatables, and we are starting to do video mapping,” says company founder Doron Gazit.
Bigger Than Life owner Mark Bachman notes a decline in point-of-sale inflatables and a growth in industrial applications, such as sealing off the chimneys of power plants to clean them.
“The use of inflatables is going from glamour to utility,” he says. “Inflatable structures are beyond anything I could have imagined 15 or 20 years ago,” Bachman adds. “I think the ‘next big thing’ in inflatables will be more emergency-support structures.”
X-Treme Creations owner Dan Vandevoorde agrees that inflatables have great life-saving potential and points to flood protection as an example.
“I think making a product that goes beyond being promotional is exciting,” he says. And his imagination soars higher than any inflatable in this atmosphere.
“Inflatable cities on Mars or another planet could be a great project,” he adds.
A cold-air inflatable is inflated by a continuously running fan. Large cold-air inflatables are extremely reliable and offer the most realistic shapes available. Sealed inflatables are inflated by mouth, foot pump or electric inflator. They may remain inflated for years, but are susceptible to leaks due to punctures. A hot air balloon-shaped inflatable is simply a giant cold-air inflatable manufactured in the distinctive shape of a hot-air balloon. These are great for high visibility—usually on rooftops—on a small budget. Helium inflatables are designed to “float” in either a fixed location (over a parking lot or trade-show booth, for example) or in parades. Helium inflatables tend to be more expensive and less reliable than cold-air inflatable giants.
—From Bigger Than Life
According to Doron Gazit, owner of Air Dimensional Design, clients requesting helium products are typically businesses located next to a freeway or companies wanting to reach higher than booth level on a trade-show floor.
Among its helium projects, Bigger Than Life made for Paramount Studios a remote-controlled Starship Enterprise for the release of Star Trek Beyond. The material choice was .25mm, unsupported PVC.
“It doesn’t hold helium as well as urethane-laminated nylon, but it allows better shapes because it’s a little stretchy,” owner Mark Bachman says. “We try to steer people away from helium. We build durable goods. If it can’t last beyond eight to 10 years, we don’t want to be involved.”
Company owner Dan Vandevoorde says that X-Treme Creations only makes helium inflatables for very specific and complex applications.
“This kind of inflatable, in my opinion, will disappear, as helium is becoming more exclusive and expensive,” he says. He recalls reports of a zeppelin that was blown by wind toward the Brussels Airport shortly after X-Treme Creations was formed.
“The military sent a fighter jet and the zeppelin was taken down. As a young entrepreneur, I will never forget this happening, so I will always push customers toward cold air.”