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Quality of Life

Who is attracted to the tradeshow labor?

The tradeshow installation and dismantle industry attracts all types of people, and there’s no typical crew member. However, we explored both the good and bad aspects that contribute to the quality of life associated with tradeshow labor and what types of people it attracts.

Part-time work, full-time pay

From its roots, tradeshow work is part-time work. Workers can work for a time, and then take time off to be with their families, travel and pursue other jobs or passions. In Texas, many workers are firefighters who work in 24-hour shifts, then have several days off. Some free spirits even find enjoyment from living life during the week while the rest of the world is in its 9-5 mode.

Bob Reinecke, owner of ABC Exhibits, was working as a software developer in 1983 when he was introduced to the tradeshow industry by his stepdad, who was a decorator in Anaheim.

“I think this is the best part-time job in the world,” said Reinecke, who claims to work 200 days per year.

Photo credit: Corey Johnson
Photo credit: Corey Johnson

In 1972, the job offered Joe Toback, president of Local 510 Sign & Display in San Francisco, the freedom to go to study film at UC Berkeley while earning an income. The commitments were short, and a part-time laborer could choose to take the job or not, come and go at will, and collect a paycheck for a weekend of work. In the San Francisco area, this attracted the bohemians, artists and travelers who wanted to pursue their passions while still making an income.

In southern California, the job appealed to surfers who wanted to work for a weekend, and then spend their weekdays catching waves and sunning themselves on the beach. All installers were part-time during this period, and even though exhibits rarely came with blueprints, they were simple wooden structures held together by wingnuts.

Opportunity for advancement

Opportunity for advancement is extremely high and the best labor companies invest in their people. Labor companies across the board are always scouting for and developing talent in every region.

“Opportunities for advancement are off the charts,” said Reinecke. “All you have to do is show talent and a good attitude. You bring your tools, you’re clean, you have a professional appearance, you’re sober, you listen, you don’t fight… and you can be in a high position within three days.”

Many companies offer training when hiring that is free or drastically less expensive compared to other forms of education. Unions offer free training, and workers advance their education and opportunities by simply working.

Not your office job

The hours are odd, the work is physical, there’s a lot of travel, people are always coming and going, and there’s always a new problem to solve. This is definitely not your typical office job, but many thrive on the challenges and continuous change.

Reinecke “didn’t like sitting in an office” when he jumped in as a decorator. Soon after, the high-energy and dynamic Reinecke was thriving in the fast-paced and ever-changing tradeshow floor and quickly advanced to traveling on national accounts.

Working with your hands

For thousands of years, human beings built physical structures using their hands and a few tools, but we live in a time where there are limited opportunities for traditional handwork. Today, products are manufactured by machines or digitally, and careers skew towards cognitive-skills rather than motor skills. But the installer of a tradeshow exhibit is hands-on throughout the entire process. From feeling the materials to using powerful tools, the process of building a tradeshow exhibit can be deeply satisfying. I&D workers can take pride in what they build, only to dismantle it days later. These people are worth admiring for possessing the increasingly rare ability to build and destroy something physical, rather than digital or intellectual.

Using your head

In the tradeshow industry, anything can go wrong, and the best people are problem solvers. Building new exhibits all the time is challenging and has a lot of trouble-shooting. “Workers like this variety and it makes their job much more enjoyable.” said Amanda Helgemoe, CEO of Nuvista.

“Things can go wrong that are out of our control, and [you’ve got to] find out how to make it work,” said Laura Fee, vice president of sales and marketing at Eagle Management Group. “We’re a labor company, but we’re a solutions provider to make everything happen on the show floor.”

Sense of community

From its core, tradeshows are founded on the relationships gained from face-to-face interactions. The best labor companies take care of their people by training them, paying them well and providing a sense of community. Helgemoe, who learned the benefits of strong organizational culture from the corporate world, said that her key to success is “to manage within [the organization] and create an environment in which [the people] care each for other.”

Relationships within labor crews are deepened through struggles and triumphs over time. They work long hours in a short few days, building a physical structure, trouble-shooting problems, overcoming challenges, looking out for each other’s safety, and all the while developing comradery.

The industry is also small enough for most people to people know each other. Within a few years, I&D workers can travel to any convention center in the country and connect with someone they know.

“It’s like a fraternity across the country,” said Reinecke. Helgemoe agreed and added that this sense of brotherhood attracts former military men.

The women enjoy the sense of community as well. Fee said she enjoys catching up with friends she has nationally.

Melinda Stewart, owner of OnSite Exhibitor Service, even made friends with man’s best friend and developed the website, TradeshowDogs.com, which states: “Almost everywhere I go I meet a tail-wagger or two. Over time, I started collecting photos of the dogs I met and was doing the old-fashioned thing of pinning their happy mugs to my bulletin board along with recipes and notes from insightful dog owners and developed my own personal collection of Tradeshow Dogs.”

Fluctuating workflow

The workflow fluctuates based on the region’s tradeshows. Some tradeshows are held in the same location every year while others change venues each time. Tradeshows are also sensitive to the economy and other factors. Sometimes, there’s not enough work to go around, and this can give rise to extreme competition. It can be difficult for a worker to depend on the tradeshow work in a region, especially if the region is not one of the top tier tradeshow cities.

This part-time lifestyle was easier in the 1970s, but most people today have some sort of debt that requires a steady paycheck. With a high demand for work, then a dry spell, people making a career in tradeshow labor need to budget their money wisely.

High demands

As a supplier to the service industry, the demands of the job and its customers can be extremely taxing. Sometimes, crews are working 12-hour days for several days in a row, with lots of travel and time away from home and families.

“We’re basically carnies,” jokes Reinecke.

Tradeshows happen all year long, and there are no holidays. North America’s largest tradeshow, International CES, is held every year in January, which means that labor crews often work during the Christmas and New Year holidays to prepare for the show.

Despite the time off earned from the part-time nature of the industry, the time is spent alone while kids are in school and spouses are at work. Missed holidays and birthdays, long hours and time on the road put a strain on personal relationships.

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