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Spotlight on Huntington Place: Valuing Labor Unions

by Jeanne Brei & Mary Klida

Karen Totaro, GM of Huntington Place/ASM Global, came to the venue in April 2021 with extensive experience in venue operations and labor relations. She gives us her thoughts on how important the labor unions are to the convention center business in any city:

KarenTotaro_TCF Center“Labor unions are the backbone of our industry and it is important when we sell our venue that we sell the skilled labor within,” says Totaro (pictured right). “In venues in particular, a majority of event-based union members have been doing the job for 10 years or more, most have been in that same venue so they’ve learned all the ins and outs, what works and what doesn’t and that can save a client time and money.”

Totaro has learned from her years as a certified venue executive and working as the COO for the San Diego CC Corp., GM of the Atlantic City CC, assistant GM of the Duke Energy CC in Cincinnati and the assistant executive director at the Oregon CC. She led the teams in Portland and San Diego in achieving the highest industry honor, the coveted “Venue Excellence Award” awarded by the International Association of Venue Managers. She believes that because union and team members have built relationships over the years, they can talk in shorthand with each other, again leading to speed and consistency of work results. In her experience, “even different unions end up synchronized. For instance, electricians may be laying floor power and right behind them may be carpenters laying carpet. Since they have done this for so long, they know the exhibit hall floors better than anyone and they know what saves time and energy, and thus cost savings follow.”

Totaro continues, “Here at Huntington Place we value our long-term relationships with our unions. We have had recent success with creating a quarterly meeting with our senior event-based department heads and the event-based union business agents and stewards. We come with a pre-determined agenda that everyone has had the opportunity to add items they want to discuss. It has been a great way for me as the new GM to start building trust and open the lines of communication. We share changes coming to the venue like a capital project or new equipment. Our sales director talks about the business forecast and what months are looking strong and what type of shows are close to signing. Our head of events reviews the current calendar and makes sure everyone has the info they need to succeed in working the upcoming events. Operations reminds all about things like closing roll-up doors and not driving carts in the public spaces. We are working toward a review of the current ‘Efficiency Memorandum’ that outlines the jurisdictions, not to change anything but to help work towards clarification around a few instances where there is vague language. We have a great group of folks involved and I know we can resolve anything working together for the good of our community.”

Labor wants business in the city and the venue, as much as the CVB or the venue itself as it leads to jobs. Totaro says, “I have worked with some exceptional business agents and stewards over my career and they can make all the difference when working with an irate client. We are all in the customer service business and that does not mean the customer is always right; it simply means the customer is the customer and we certainly want to help them succeed so they will want to return. Equally as important we want the customer to share their experience with their industry peers who may be looking to host an event.”

Labor can be protective of their jurisdictions but, Totaro believes, “that is a good thing as it goes back to the training and the skill of our labor forces. I know I want to run a safe building, a safe operation. I want all our staff, our contractors and our attendees to leave at the end of the day as healthy as they came in that day so when one union is responsible for major electric installs I very much want their expertise and skill set; same for hanging heavy loads above the floor. I, for one, want the team that is trained and certified to hang heavy loads.”

It takes a village to put on a tradeshow or conference and labor basically builds a city for the most important day of each event’s life and then they dismantle it and build another city, over and over for the next events. As Totaro explains, “It takes skill, patience and a sense of humor to succeed in this business and, in my experience, labor brings that to the table each and every day.”

This story originally appeared in the Q1 2022 issue of Exhibit City News, p. 30 in the special section: Spotlight on Huntington Place. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_Q1_2022


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