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Common Misconceptions about Tradeshow Labor

Who is today’s exhibitor?
Despite the fact that tradeshow exhibit management is increasingly complex, there are less tradeshow managers today than 20 years ago. Today, your average tradeshow manager may be a marketing director who is responsible for several other marketing projects and deliverables, and does not have a full understanding of how tradeshows operate. Or, your tradeshow manager may be the young marketing coordinator who is in her 20s and just learning the ropes.

Photo credit: Corey Johnson
Photo credit: Corey Johnson

Then there’s the international exhibitor who is exhibiting in the U.S. for the first time. While an exhibit made of plywood would suffice in France, the higher standard of exhibits in the U.S. drives the demand for a pristine exhibit, and they are surprised by the costliness and longer lead-times. Not only is the exhibit expensive to build, but to install as well. Plus, the hoops to jump through are confusing even for someone who speaks English as a first language.

The people in charge of planning tradeshow programs are entrusted not only with thousands of marketing dollars, but with the burden of ensuring that their event is executed flawlessly, meets the expectations from management and coworkers, and proves successful for their company. And while technology blesses us with real-time updates and all the information we need at our fingertips, there’s too much for the already time-strapped or inexperienced exhibitor to manage or know.

With more to know but less knowledge, exhibitors have misconceptions that are costly and inefficient. We identified four of the most common misconceptions about tradeshow labor below.

Common Misconceptions

  1. “Installing a tradeshow exhibit is just an assembly of parts.”
    American business ideology has a deep-rooted belief that labor is a commodity, a low-level service in which it does not matter who performs the task. After an exhibit has been built and shipped, exhibitors think that the critical decisions have been made. They approved the production proofs and trust the account executive to ensure that the pieces were constructed and the properties delivered to show site. Now they expect the labor crew to follow the exhibit’s blueprint – just an assembly of parts, right?Not exactly. Tradeshow exhibits have evolved from heavy wooden structures held together by wing-nuts, to custom experiential environments that immerse attendees in a brand message. The level of expertise needed is beyond just an assembly of parts.“The truth is that tradeshow labor is full-on project management, not just ‘installation’,” said Chris Griffin, CEO, TS Crew. “For an island exhibit with multiple components like laminates, fabrics, lighting, furniture, custom shaped structures, customized flooring and multimedia electronics, the exhibitor needs a project manager to ensure that all the parts and pieces from the seven to 15 vendors are there to create the at-show environment.”Many of the installers have had training in exhibit installation including specific systems, which are usually made of many pieces that look alike and follow a specific step-by-step installation process.

    Despite the additional work demanded by today’s exhibits, the installation timeframe has not increased. The labor crews today have the same timeframe for installation as they did 20 years ago.

    And under this time crunch, decisions are critical. What if a crate is late? What if properties are damaged? What if the set-up instructions are missing or incorrect? What if the rental furniture didn’t appear? Labor crews are continually presented with these challenges, making their job more than just an assembly of parts.

    A good labor crew is made of problem solvers, not problem causers. Many of the people working to install an exhibit are specialized in exhibitry and had professional training. When a quality crew is hired, not only is excellent service expected, but so is professionalism. The best tradeshow labor companies have the best people, training, processes and equipment to provide an exemplary level of service so that exhibits are installed correctly and efficiently to meet the exhibitor’s expectations and save them money.

  2. “Changes or repairs can be made by the onsite labor crew.”
    From seamless edges to graphics that are up-to-date with all product updates, exhibitors are under intense pressure to achieve perfection in all aspects of exhibiting. Perfectionism and a lack of firm decision-making is compounded with the immediate communication made possible by technology, and enabled exhibitors to make last-minute changes, a costly behavior on and off the show floor.Installation crews are increasingly receiving exhibits that are 85 percent complete because the exhibitor decided to make last-minute changes that the exhibit house tried to accommodate, but was unable to complete in the time crunch. Not only does the exhibit arrive to show floor not ready for installation, but its drawings and instructions may be inaccurate, slowing the process.For example, let’s say an exhibit needs holes drilled to run electrical cords for monitors that were added last-minute. Rather than one carpenter at the exhibit house drilling the holes for one hour, the onsite labor crew receives the instructions to drill the holes, takes time to read the blueprints, figures out where the holes need to be drilled, measures multiple times because there’s low margin for error, then drills the holes. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew waits for the work to finish before moving forward with the installation. Thus, a task that could have taken one hour in the exhibit house takes four hours on the show floor, with a huge ding to the exhibitor’s bill.
    Even though exhibitors are under intense pressure for perfection or staying within budget, they need to understand that the most expensive decisions are made on the show floor. As author Andy Andrews said, “Successful people make their decisions quickly and change their minds slowly. Failures make their decisions slowly and change their minds quickly.”A similar scenario is when a budget-sensitive exhibitor is trying to get as much life as possible out of an exhibit, and never takes it back to the shop in between shows. Then the exhibit shows up to a tradeshow in need of repairs or missing pieces. Exhibitors should consider the cost of ownership, including repairs and refurbishment.

    An exhibit is a tangible object that is produced. With the increase in digital marketing and decrease of print marketing and domestic production, today’s marketing managers and exhibitors may be accustomed to making changes that are done with the click of a button. However, producing a physical object takes time and materials, and the possible mistakes are costly.

  3. “I can install my own exhibit, or bring my crew to do it.”
    Inexperienced and international exhibitors are often surprised by the strict rules and regulations surrounding installation and dismantle. Some rules even seem ridiculous. How do you explain to someone that they’re not allowed to plug in their own extension cord?Yet there are these rules across the U.S. According to TS Crew, 52 percent of convention centers in the U.S. have a union affiliation, with some stronger than others. The electrician’s union reserves the right to most electrical work, including placing electrical service, running extension cords, placing light fixtures, and sometimes hanging flat screens and LCD monitors. Rigging professionals is another union that reserves the right to hang or “fly” any hanging structures, including large signs. Teamster unions have exclusive jurisdiction over all freight brought or delivered to the show floor, plus the material handling equipment like dollies, hand-trucks, pallet-jacks, forklifts and genie lifts.No other country’s installation labor laws are as strict as in the U.S. When an international exhibitor finds that they cannot dolly their own exhibit, they are surprised at the least. Sometimes, the seeming absurdity of the rules and the fact that they vary from state-to-state (or even between venues within one city) leads an international exhibitor to think that they’re being cheated.A right-to-work state has relaxed union rules, thus are generally less expensive places to exhibit. We will explore unions and their role further in an upcoming issue.
  4. “My main partner is my exhibit house.” 
    Most exhibitors don’t realize that it takes a fleet of people to create their exhibit. From the time an exhibit leaves the warehouse and is set-up in its exhibit space, it has been touched by the exhibit house, electrical, shipping server, forklift driver, electrical crew, rigging crew. However, the exhibitor only sees one – their exhibit house.Yet with all these moving parts and pieces, anything can go wrong. Shipments can be late. Pieces can go missing. The TV monitor may be dropped in shipment and its screen shattered. The forklift driver can bump into the reception counter, creating a three-inch gash that needs to be repaired onsite.And setting-up an exhibit has an order. The carpet or other floor covering must be laid and the overhanging sign rigged before the exhibit can be constructed. When one piece of the puzzle is missing, the entire timeline is slowed. And the crews are given only a few days to pull it all together. That’s why the best labor companies have clear processes and systems in place to ensure accuracy.


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