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Home-grown Skyline Exhibits is one of world’s largest trade-show players

Workers at Skyline Exhibits assemble a trade show exhibit booth in the staging a
Courtesy of Skyline Exhibits
Workers at Skyline Exhibits assemble a trade show exhibit
booth in the staging area at the company’s Eagan
headquarters.

Even in the digital age, people still like to do business face-to-face. You might buy a book or a sweater online, but if you’re laying down a million dollars for a piece of diagnostic equipment, you probably want to size up the person who’s selling it to you.

So, it’s not surprising that companies spend more than $24 billion a year on trade shows, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

What may be surprising is that one of the world’s largest players in the trade show business is based in Eagan. Skyline Exhibits was founded out of the back of a car in 1980 by the late Gordon Savoie. His insight was in realizing that the principles of a pop-up tent could be adapted to making lightweight, versatile trade show exhibits.

Skyline now employs more than 250 people at its headquarters and has about 130 independent dealers in 31 countries. More than 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have done business with Skyline, said Steve Jahr, a company spokesman.

Though Skyline can handle any kind of trade show exhibit, its sweet spot remains lightweight, custom modular units that employ digitally printed fabric panels and can be easily sized up or down by adding or subtracting components. The modular units are easier to transport and set up; they weigh less and offer a smaller carbon footprint than booth spaces made of wood, metal and plastic.

Business is especially strong in Europe, Jahr said, where personal relationships are highly valued.

“Their trade shows have longer hours and run for more days than they do here,” he said. “They’ll have bars built into their exhibit space and do entertaining. In the U.S., it’s more like speed dating.”

Business has been strong at Skyline. Company revenues grew 20 percent in 2010, which officials attribute to pent-up demand after the economic collapse. That rush has slowed, but the company posted nearly a 6 percent increase in 2011 and is on track to match that this year. Skyline has hired more than 25 full- or part-time employees this year and expects to continue adding staff over the next few months.

The privately held company doesn’t release its annual revenue, but Skyline President Bill Dierberger said the retail value of its production (which it sells at wholesale to dealers) is “several hundred million dollars.” Dierberger expects growth to continue, even as the world becomes more wired.

“The trade show creates an environment for the client to be much more efficient in their shopping,” he said. “They can see five or six products in two hours, rather than flying all over the country making 10 different visits.”

Earlier this year, Skyline was named the winner of the Outstanding Corporate Innovation Award from the Product Development and Management Association. Past winners of the award include such well-known names as Apple, Harley-Davidson, BMW and UnitedHealth Group.

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