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Fly Tradeshow Airways

What if the tradeshow industry were run like airlines?

Several months ago I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “If the World Were Run Like Airlines.” In this ‘altered’ world, sandwich prices would spike at peak hours and ‘priority’ elevators at the hotel would cost extra. Grocery stores would narrow their aisles to get more product in the store and generate more revenue.

While this article poked fun at the vagaries of the over-regulated and super competitive airline business, it got me thinking about our industry. How much different than the airline industry is the tradeshow industry, really?

Imagine if airlines ran tradeshows. We’d work in an industry where price changes happen at a moment’s notice, where customers are hit with penalties of hundreds of dollars and schedules don’t necessarily mean much. Just imagine…

In the airline industry, buy your ticket more than 14 days out and it’s one price; buy it the day of your flight and it can be more than double. In the tradeshow industry, reserve your show services two months out and it’s one price; wait until you’re on show site and it can be more than double.

In the airline industry a multitude of outside influences – weather, traffic and mechanical issues – can impact flight schedules and cause delays that an individual passenger has no control over. In the tradeshow industry a multitude of outside influences – weather, traffic, jammed marshalling yards – can impact the delivery of freight to an exhibit, something the individual exhibitor has no control over.

In the airline industry, sometimes you can buy a ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles for $149.00, but if you want to fly from Chicago to Springfield, Ill., it may cost you over $500.00. In the tradeshow industry, you can ship your exhibit from Chicago to Los Angeles for $2,500.00, and then spend another $2,500.00 to get it from the loading dock to your booth space.

In the airline industry, if your bag doesn’t fit in the sizing box, you can’t take it in the cabin with you; you’ll have to check it as baggage, and if you have more than one bag, you’ll pay extra. In the tradeshow industry, if you send your exhibit properties in advance, the price is different than if you send them directly to the show site. And if they’re not crated, you might pay a ‘special handling’ fee.

In the airline industry you can buy a seat on a plane; however, if you want that seat next to a window or an aisle, it costs more. If you want that seat in the front of the plane and a little bigger, it can cost double the price. In the tradeshow industry you can rent a plastic chair; however, if you want that chair in leather, it costs more. If you want to rent that chair in a designer style, it can cost double or triple what it would cost to buy it outright.

The airline way of doing business is unique – few other industries have as many rules and restrictions, fees, frustrations and disruptions. Not many other businesses have such varied and ever-changing pricing. Unless of course, you’re in the tradeshow industry, where each show and each city and each venue has its own rules and restrictions, fees, frustrations and disruptions, and ever changing pricing.

Airlines face a unique set of challenges, including easy world-wide comparison shopping, high equipment costs, complicated work rules and vulnerability to government regulations. As do tradeshows, including global competition among shows and venues and other forms of marketing spending, high show service costs, complicated union jurisdiction work rules and vulnerability to those regulations.

OK, so what started out to be a humorous look at how the airlines might run the tradeshow industry has suddenly become not so funny. Sometimes reality is more frightening than one might think. Right about now, I’m feeling kind of like I’m riding between two very large passengers in the middle seat on a crowded four-hour flight…

See you on the show floor.

Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 30 years, both as a corporate trade show manager and exhibit house executive. He is a partner in the trade show and event marketing firm Reveal. He can be reached at jobermeyer@revealexhibits.com.

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