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Making Waves With Photo Sails

Photo Sails may seem like a simple idea. But the concept was hardly simple to execute. It took nearly four years of product testing and marketing to come up with the first real Photo Sail.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Discover a sea of possibilities with Photo Sails, the latest wide-format digital imaging craze in the South.

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  • Necessity is usually the mother of invention ­ and that was certainly the case with Photo Sails.

    Aaron Kiss, an Ohio University Communications graduate and accomplished sailing captain and charter businessman from Fort Lauderdale, came up with the innovative concept when a city ban on beach handouts hindered his business.

    Kiss depended on tourists to patronize his charter service, and had to find another way to get their attention. After some experimentation, Kiss came up with the idea for using sails as the support for his promotional graphics.

    “We were immediately successful as this idea was born of necessity,” says Kiss. “We started using sails for marketing in 1995 and after years of product testing we invented the first real Photo Sails in 1999 for the launch of Anheuser-Bush's Tequiza in five U.S. cities.”

    It’s been nearly 10 years since that product launch. During that time, Photo Sails has matured as a concept and as a highly profitable business, with no upper limit in sight. Indeed, Photo Sails has capitalized on an idea that has worked for many entrepreneurs - use what you have and do what you know.

    Photo Sails - sail-cloth in warehouse Creating a Whole New Substrate
    Photo Sails may seem like a simple idea. But the concept was hardly simple to execute. It took Kiss nearly four years of product testing and marketing to come up with the first real Photo Sail. In order to make Photo Sails functional as well as beautiful, Kiss and his associates had to think outside the box, and even outside the boat, as it were.

    “Achieving the perfect shape or draft in a sail is possible through more than one method,” explains Kiss, who bypassed traditional methods to serve his unique purposes. “Our imaging equipment deems it a necessity that any material accepting imaging must lay on a planer surface, flat and smooth.”

    Not only is the shape of the sail critically important, the surface of the sail has to be smooth enough to function as a reliable substrate. Finding a material that could be printed on both sides without showing through to the other, and that was strong enough to function well as a sail, was also a challenge for Kiss.

    Although he declined to reveal the exact composition of the substrate ­ after all, that’s part of his secret sauce ­ Kiss says the printable sailcloth is made from patented four-layer laminates with a core of smooth 18-ounce vinyl, constructed to meet each sail’s custom requirements.

    Kiss explains, “Photo Sails go through multiple phases of construction. Our custom internationally patented, 100 percent opaque, four-layer raw cloth is created depending on the desired weight, strength, scrim count and warp/fill angle.”

    The four-layered laminates have fill fibers and polymeric scrim warp for strength and are available in four different weights per square yard. The substrate used will vary according to sail requirements. Carbon fiber, Spectra and Kevlar can be used to reinforce high stress and high load areas such as the head and sail leech. Layers are pressure-treated and heated to meld them into one smooth piece of sail cloth.

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    The exterior surface layers are pure white and able to accept a whopping two million CMYK color applications. Between these exterior layers lies the scrim layer with reinforcing fibers (strategically placed to function as a rip stop) and an opaque layer to prevent back-lit show through.

    Lasalle Bank sail in production from Photo Sails “Additionally,” Kiss says, “each set of sails is a completely different animal as designs, applications, climates, vessel and rig configuration changes with each client. Every Photo Sail we commission is a one-of-a-kind piece of art.”

    A Unique Imaging Technology
    The Photo Sails process is internationally patented, or is patent pending, in 23 countries. Although the idea of sail printing cannot be patented, the Photo Sails process is a closely guarded secret.

    Probably the only obstacle to unfettered business expansion, reflects Kiss, is the legal expense of protecting a product and process in 23 countries. Protecting the process assures sails produced will meet Photo Sails high standards.

    Sails are designed by sail makers Doyle Sails and Nance Underwood Rigging, where they are configured and aligned according to the dimensions required by the craft they will adorn. Care is taken to make them not only appealing to the eye, but fully functional, high quality sails.

    Graphics designers collaborate with sail makers and Photo Sails to create an extremely clear and true to design photo image. Photo Sails then images the design onto sail panels, using microwave heat seam technology to create a seamless to the eye image. The Photo Sails are finally returned to the sail shop where they are fitted according to order with grommets, battens, reinforcement patches, adjustment fittings and lines.

    The typical set of sails has approximately 2,400 square feet of printing surface. Standard solvent-based inks at 300 dpi are used on a VUTEk Ultra Vu 5300 grand-format inkjet printer. Each side is printed, then clear-coated with a liquid laminate to preserve color and sharpness. The VUTEk allows for a width of up to 16 feet 5 inches. Sails wider than this must be printed in sections, and then seamed with a RF welder.

    The technology that makes this possible is now quite widely used and available for other applications as well. Cost is relatively sane, running from under $40 per square foot of sail to a little over $20 per square foot for orders of nine or more sails.

    When asked what the greatest challenge of this whole process is, Kiss says, “Getting an advertiser to choose a design that will be effective for the years that Photo Sails will last.”

    American Airlines shake sail The Future of Using Wide-Format Printing for Promotional Art
    At the end of the process, each Photo Sails is a “floating billboard.” These are striking, well-designed, high resolution images with unbelievably awesome color. Photo Sails are real eye-catchers sure to burn the advertiser’s message into the viewer’s memory, Kiss insists.

    “Every client we have had in our years of service has returned to expand and repeat purchases or programs,” Kiss says. “That to us spells success. Additionally, we have monitored our clients closely as we believe accountability is our best asset.”

    Recent Photo Sail clients are the likes of Coke, Coors, American Airlines and Corona. And the impact of these well-designed and crafted vessels is measurable in dollars and cents. Crocs Footwear sales reportedly rose 8,000 percent following the launching of its Photo Sails bedecked boat. Sails decorated with these beautiful commercial images can be seen in almost every major port town, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Houston, Cleveland, and Daytona.

    There is a large difference between impressions and quality impressions, according to Kiss. As he sees it, billboards on highways have become desensitizing. Airplane banners are getting bad press for their safety record and for being loud and obnoxious.

    “Our vessels are not only unforgettable and mobile, but we are capable of attending thousands of events while not only sporting the largest signage at most events but offering a platform capable of creating public relations programs such as VIP entertainment, employee rewards, public sweepstakes, on and off premise promotions and even guerrilla marketing tactics such as cross medium exposure through radio trade giveaways and unsolicited media attention,” Kiss says.

    Kiss likes to think of Photo Sails as the undiscovered next generation of digitally imaged branding vehicles, with a touch of class. He looks forward to the company’s international growth with prestigious brands and service providers seeking the association of the elite sport of sailing.

    “Who knows? Perhaps the next venue for ‘big commercial art’ will be the space program,” Kiss says. “Added to building, bus, truck and car wraps, sailboats and rocket ships don’t seem so far-fetched!”

    What Kiss has done with Photo Sails can be replicated on a smaller scale with similar effect, making this remarkable new medium for getting a message across limited only, as Kiss says, by the imagination.

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