Build Your Business:

Live Decorating: On the Road with Tees Part 2

In the second half of our live-decorating road trip, we unlocked even more keys needed to turn immobile shops into thriving mobile businesses via digital decorating and heat pressing

By Dustin Shrader, Managing Editor

Music and pop culture are ideal themes for live decorating events. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

March 8, 2024

Strap yourselves in because we are back on the road to complete our live-decorating adventure! In Part 1 of our road-trip series, we visited Barrel Maker Printing and Sew Sweet Academy. At each stop, we learned that live decorating is different for everyone, and that what works for embroiderers might not work for screen printers. And one size continues to not fit all, which was even more evident after visiting Equipment Zone and STAHLS’ to find out what these specific brands do when it comes to mobile printing. Join us at our final two destinations to discover everything you need for onsite digital decorating and heat pressing.

Equipment Zone – Digital Decorating

At our third stop on our nationwide tour, we spoke with Terry Combs, director of sales and training at Equipment Zone, the source for Epson direct-to-garment (DTG) printers; the SpeedTreater-TX Automatic Pretreater; dye sublimation, wide format and solvent printers; inks and supplies; and heat presses. During our conversation, Combs advised that any decorator choosing to add a mobile shop to their offered services must first determine which marketplace they plan to approach, followed by the best decorating technology that will best serve that market.

Epson digital decorating printer

In addition to T-shirts, hats are a great option for onsite decorating. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

“The decoration method you choose will determine what you buy, but the items you actually take to the event should be compact and as minimal as possible,” Combs says. “Have an understanding of how much onsite production you are actually capable of, before committing to events where you might be overwhelmed and in turn disappoint your customer. In other words, communicate with your customer your capabilities beforehand, so there’s no confusion.”

According to Combs, there are multiple benefits for decorators and consumers when it comes to live digital decorating. Consumers can be really intrigued and enjoy seeing the step-by-step process. Outside of profits for the decorator, this type of exposure, more often than not, can lead to new customers seeing what decorators can do in real time resulting in more events being booked. These interactions create undeniable credibility and trust once customers can “see” that you’re able to produce outstanding results.

Of course, just like any other job, live decorating is not without its potential snafus. “Weather, poor attendance, the difficulty of moving your equipment from your shop and back again can all be cons,” Combs says. “But the opportunities do outweigh them. As to mishaps, try to keep your process and your offerings simple and as risk free as possible. Sometimes unforeseen issues arise, and things happen. Be prepared with backup plans, just in case, or be ready to move on.”

That preparation requires careful planning, specifically putting together a curated list of everything you will need from the time you leave your shop and hit the road to setting up and working the event. Being meticulous will help avoid mishaps. From what Combs has seen, some decorators set up a full trailer with their preferred equipment permanently mounted for common outdoor events; while others, can simply load up a rented van or truck with equipment and supplies. Carts with heavy-duty casters are always a plus, Combs says because of the irregular surfaces you may encounter in a live setting.

“With digital decorating, a DTF (direct-to-film) printer wouldn’t be practical to take to an event, but incredibly easy to take transfers, a heat press and blank garments,” says Combs. “For DTG, some machines are mobile, and others are not. When taking a DTG machine to an event, you would commonly have the shirts pretreated. At the event, you could do custom graphics or event photos armed with your printer, a heat press and blank garments.”

Prep transfers in advance for quick application. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

He goes on to say, depending on the event and the market, decorators even have the opportunity with digital decorating to do individual custom images; although, simplify the process by creating templates allowing you to drop in a photo or a name quickly, which keeps the line moving to avoid lengthy wait times that can frustrate customers and drive those prospects away.

When it comes to the equipment section of your prep list, certain types are better than others for live printing. A more compact printer, whether DTG, DTF or sublimation, will make the process easier. Combs advises decorators to consult their warranty to be sure a particular piece of equipment can be used in this manner without voiding the warranty. In reference to DTG, DTF and sublimation, a mobile shop with equipment secured in place could be compatible with any of these technologies. However, Combs points out that if you’re moving into a venue, DTG and sublimation are the best options.

“This market has real growth potential for the decorator who likes to be in front of the public,” Combs says. “Be ready to explain the process over and over again. People are intrigued by what we do every day.”


At our last stop on our live decorating tour, we popped in on the team at STAHLS’ to get its take on decorating at live events, as well as some inside scoop on their partnership with the NFL.
Like the other brands we visited, STAHLS’ thoroughly believes printing onsite successfully starts with choosing the right event, planning properly and choosing a specific decorating technique to go with.

Heat pressing names on jerseys

Once a draft pick is announced, STAHLS’’ has less than a minute to print the jersey using a Hotronix Fusion press. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

“For efficient production, portability and simplifying the supplies needed, using a heat press is by far the most accessible option for on-site activations,” says David Conner, STAHLS’ and Transfer Express content director. “There’s no need for extended space for the dryers, inks or cleanup that typically are associated with screen printing on site. Plastisol transfers can afford identical quality with a fraction of the effort and time.”

The essentials needed for STAHLS’ preferred method are: a heat press; blank apparel stock (well organized); heat transfers; a display (backdrop/banners/etc.); and a point-of-sale system to be able to process payments.

STAHLS’ says to be mindful about staffing, a commonly overlooked requirement. Processing and printing orders can require long days and be strenuous on the most seasoned decorator. To avoid closing shop for a quick break, bring someone who you can trust, as they will be handling customers’ money, as well as representing your brand to even more potential customers.

“Live decorating does not come without specific costs,” Conner says. “For decorators planning to print onsite, the costs vary depending on the specific needs for equipment and staffing involved. Typically, for local events, you’ll need a van or truck to be able to bring the proverbial show-on-the-road, which may involve rental costs. In cases where shipping is involved, you’ll typically see freight being the best way, with packing supplies onto a pallet and shipping out, which can get expensive.”

As part of the planning process, be sure to keep in mind the typical vendor costs to the event organizer, or a commission on each sale to be paid back. There’s also the cost of apparel stock, specific decoration and transfers. Calculate these expenses based on the projected attendance with a simple, basic average conversion rate within the 10-25 percent range for most events. By doing so, you’ll be able to offset any unexpected expenses that may arise during the event Conner explains.

Draft names are lined up and ready to go on the correct jerseys. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

Also, do not forget you’ll need your booth, tables, chairs, banners, backdrops, EZ-Up Canopies (typically 10-feet-by-10-feet) depending on the exact event. An eye-catching booth can draw people in as it’s usually the first thing customers see. In some cases, you may luck up and be able to rent some of these items from the event organizers.

“Ideally, designs [for printing or pressing] will need to be prepped in advance,” Conner says. “However, in some cases when customization or personalization is involved it’s typically done with a commercial-grade vinyl cutter. Bringing any digital printing machines (Like DTF or DTG) that require climate-controlled environments are never the best solution for on-site printing. When printing in the fanzones at sporting events, like the NFL draft, designs are prepped as they are ordered with simplicity in mind, such as names and numbers to reduce the time needed for cutting and weeding. Any complicated imagery (like team names/logos) are printed in advance and applied in tandem with the customization.”

Speaking of the NFL, STAHLS’ has been the behind-the-scenes partner for the NFL Draft for over a decade. In collaboration with the Fantatics team, the jerseys are printed backstage, within one minute of when the draft pick is chosen to when it is announced on stage by host Roger Goodell.

For 2023, STAHLS’ Decorating Fulfillment Center (DFC) prepared pre-spaced and ready-to apply names of rostered athletes prior to the NFL Draft. There were 17 athletes attending the first round that year. There are 32 NFL teams, and STAHLS’ prepared a quantity of two names per player, just in case anything unexpected happened.

“All in all we had 1,088 names ready to print,” says Conner. “They were all kept organized in folders for easy reference onsite.”

Behind the scenes, STAHLS’ had color-coordinated print jerseys on display at the 2023 NFL Draft. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

In addition to behind the scenes, STAHLS’ had the opportunity to support another partner, Hugo Boss in the Fan Zone, offering customization on the back of pre-decorated T-shirts.

“We are truly honored to be a trusted partner of Fanatics, Hugo Boss and the NFL,” says Ted Stahl, executive chairman of the board GroupeSTAHL. “Our commitment to quality, speed, and innovation makes us a go-to source for imprinted sportswear. We serve sports teams of all sizes in all types of organizations around the world.”

And there you have it folks, everything you need to take your decorating business to new heights, whether you offer one or multiple services for customers to choose. As you have learned from the experts, market demand is quite high for on-site printing. From tradeshows to expos, sporting events from the big leagues to local tournaments, community events, markets, art festivals, craft and vendor shows, to name a few, the sky really is the limit. Pack up that equipment, pile the team in the van and hit the road!