Trade show managers are increasingly being expected to squeeze every penny possible out of a program’s costs, prompting many to shake the bushes looking for reductions they never considered before. One low-hanging fruit is in transportation, with the logistics of trade show shipping often appearing as a sizeable line item on a company’s show budget. But contemplating changes, considering the sizeable array of options available, can be confusing for anyone challenged with managing the budget. Deciding to ship less, ship lighter, ship directly, or rely on a middleman or two are all options on the table, but with a trade show display hanging in the balance, knowing which to choose can be a daunting task.
The most straightforward, and often the most costly, option is to have an exhibit house handle all of the transportation logistics for a display for a percentage of the shipping rate or a flat fee. For that service, many exhibit houses charge clients in the range of 15 to 20 percent of the total shipping costs, and in exchange, they handle all aspects of transportation.

The exhibit house is often arranging transportation with a third party logistics partner, which some exhibit managers could as easily do on their own, says Hanna Amese, trade show manager for Capiz Services Inc. “There are a lot of logistics companies out there that offer door-to-door service for event managers,” Amese says, “and you might be able to save a bit on shipping if you contract for that service directly rather than having your exhibit house do it.” However, she adds, doing so often means taking a more hands-on approach to preparing crates and documentation as well as tracking the shipment, and for time-strapped exhibit managers, the additional burden may not be possible.

Also, sometimes exhibit houses have multiple clients at a show or ship so frequently that they have negotiated good rates with a provider, making the difference in cost between using the exhibit house or arranging it internally negligible, says Amese. There is the hassle factor to consider as well, she says. “If the exhibit house will take care of everything and take responsibility for seeing that the exhibit is where you need for it to be at the end of the shipping process, then that is definitely worth something,” says Amese. “Any problems – whether a booth gets damaged or lost or whatever – are theirs to deal with, and the peace of mind that comes with that can be worth the extra charge.” But when going that route, Amese warns, exhibit houses should be asked to provide a closed rate, meaning the total shipping cost is quoted as a flat fee up front. That way, in the event of problems, the exhibit house would take on the financial burden of most transportation issues en route rather than pass them along to the client.

Some exhibit houses are not using full-service logistics providers, but rather ordinary trucking companies, and industry veterans caution that while it can seem the most economical choice when taking shipping in house, it can be a route fraught with dangers for those who lack experience. Allen Sominski, an independent exhibit manager with 25 years in the trade show industry, says there are many things that must be considered when hiring direct shipping services, and exhibit managers who are new to the industry or who have little spare time in their schedule should think twice before tackling this option. “You need to arrange everything, from what kind of truck will be used to what time the driver will arrive at the marshalling yard,” Sominski says. “Any missed detail can be a disaster.” Moreover, driver wait charges at the marshaling yard, union labor standing around waiting for a late truck, forced freight because a driver doesn’t show up, or any of a dozen other scenarios could quickly eat any expected savings, he says.

If contemplating trucking services or logistics companies, Sominski says, it’s important to choose companies that specialize in the trade show industry. The reason is that exhibitions are a unique animal in the shipping world, with different terminology, deadlines, and penalties than many ordinary transportation services. Also important is opting for “air-ride” vehicles if there is any possibility that materials, even though crated, could be damaged. The forgiveness offered by an air-ride truck compared to what’s often referred to as “common carrier” vehicles can be the difference between an exhibit that’s ready to assemble versus one that has significant damage. These types of technicalities, plus the nuances of off-loading freight, navigating the marshalling yard, and adhering to deadlines, makes the experience of the company far more complicated than just getting from one spot to another, says Sominski. By the same token, a company’s in-house shipping department may lack the expertise to successfully take on shipping for exhibitions, so absorbing the work internally is often more complicated than it sounds.

In general, Sominski and Amese agree, cheaper is not necessarily better, and sometimes – especially in the trade show industry – you get what you pay for. “If they didn’t have air-ride trucks and experience with trade shows, I wouldn’t go with a trucking company no matter how cheap it was,” Amese says. “Getting my exhibit to a show is too important to gamble with rock-bottom providers.”

But before overhauling a system that is working, says exhibit designer Sheila Lindquist, it might be best to have a frank talk with the exhibit house. “If shipping costs seem too high,” she says, “it’s important to start with a conversation with your exhibit house because there might be other solutions that can trim the same amount from the budget.”

It is possible that some of the weight can be redesigned out of the display, which would not only cut down on shipping costs, but the dreaded drayage charges as well, Lindquist says. Substituting fabric for some hard walls, switching up flooring, or reimagining hanging signage might seem like insignificant changes, but the difference in weight could add up to significant savings over time.

It is also possible that an exhibit house will make concessions on the cost – perhaps by reducing the percentage or charging a flat fee rather than a percentage – in order to help an exhibit manager stay within their budget or keep higher-ups happy, says Lindquist. “They don’t want their clients to be unhappy,” she says, “so it’s likely that they are going to work with them on cost whenever it is possible.”

Another option may be reducing the number of times an exhibit is shipped by sending it directly to the next show or storing it in the next city where it will be used. Warehouse facilities exist in all major trade show destinations, and even choosing one half way between the last show and the next one can be a significant savings over sending it back home, says Lindquist. The only issue with doing so, she says, is creating a plan for assessing the condition of the display before the next event. If a property is not being returned to the company or exhibit house, then the ordinary inspection and refurbishment of the display can be problematic. “The last thing an exhibit manager wants is to show up at the next show and find out there was some damage they didn’t know about,” says Lindquist. Managers will need to take extra steps to evaluate the condition of the display when it is being crated after a show, she says, so that any trouble spots can be addressed well in advance of the setup deadline.

Amese says she cuts down on shipping costs by renting items whenever possible. Furniture, light fixtures, and other decorations are all things that add to both the dimensions and weight of freight, and sometimes they can be rented for less than the cost to ship them, she says. If the rental cost is too high or the selection too low, Amese says, she will drive to a local IKEA or similar store and purchase items, which she then donates to a local charity after the show. Even doing that, she said, is often cheaper than shipping bulky or heavy pieces.

Rental exhibit components are also available more and more, Amese says, and she will sometimes substitute rental towers, reception counters, or light panels rather than transport her own. Sominski says it is also much more common now to rent entire exhibits, which saves on shipping costs almost entirely. The quality and variety of items available has improved dramatically over the years, he says, and the options for customization can make it very difficult to identify a rented display. Combining rental components with a few signature exhibit pieces allows a company to save significantly and maintain its branding at the same time, Sominski says.

More and more companies are eschewing printed collateral or giveaways at shows, leaning instead towards digital materials and freebies like coupons for local amenities. But for those prefer the former, show veterans suggest they consider having the items printed in the show city or purchasing tchotchkes from a local provider. Same goes for signage, which may not add a lot of weight to a shipment, but may add girth if it must be shipped flat.
The bottom line, Sominski says, is the less you ship, the less you have to worry about if something goes wrong with a shipment, and odds are that someday it will. Exhibit managers regale each other over beers with stories about trucks that vanished, delivery drivers who got arrested en route, drivers who got tired of waiting in marshalling yards and left, blizzards and hurricanes, crates that were stolen, and entire displays that melted in the sun. The reality is that navigating trade show transportation can feel like crossing a minefield, and the only time a trade show manager sleeps well is when the exhibit is setup on the show floor. It goes without saying that good backup plan is always in order, no matter what route you go when arranging shipping, veterans agree. The other essential is expertise, whether you entrust shipping to your exhibit house or a logistics company, or opt to take on the task in-house. The more experience your shipper has, whoever it is, the less likely you are to be sitting over beers telling stories yourself.

Sunset Transportation
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