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Tradeshow Trauma

It was a Sunday morning; very early on a Sunday morning – 5 a.m. – when the sound of my cell phone going off awakened me. As I came into consciousness I realized that my son had gone out the night before. My heartbeat quickened. Upon reaching the phone, across the bedroom, the name on the caller ID wasn’t his, but it didn’t calm my already-pounding chest. It was a client, who was setting up their exhibit at a large show in Europe.

“This can’t be good,” I thought. It wasn’t.

He was missing two very large fabric graphics, the centerpiece to the design. I asked him the question every one of us has asked in this situation, “Are you sure you looked in every crate?” Yes, he had.

At 5:30 am, I had awakened my account manager and a few minutes later she was waking contacts at a freight company to see how quickly we could get a package from St. Louis to Europe. The show opened Tuesday morning. The package would have to be there on Monday – the next day.

At 6 a.m., I was on the phone with our partner company in Europe, talking about a fallback plan. If we couldn’t get these graphics over there, could he reproduce them from art or come up with another solution locally? He would come back to me with his ideas.

By 6:30 a.m., I was on a conference call with another international freight carrier – their local dispatcher in Chicago and a representative at the show. There were two options: (1) Hand carry the package to the U.S. departure airport (JFK in New York) and put it on a plane to the European show city, or (2) Hand carry it all the way myself. That was the preferred method – in my carry-on. I could catch a flight at 3 p.m. and be there by 2 p.m. the next afternoon – in time to get the graphics installed before the Tuesday show open. This was going to be an expensive fix.

I called my warehouse manager at 7 a.m. to have him meet me at the shop to help unstack crates and find the graphic. 

On the way to the office I am wondering how this could happen. What did we miss in the process? My account manager said that along with the work order, she provided a detailed pack list and a photo of the booth with the correct graphic circled.  How did the warehouse guys miss that?

By 7:30 a.m. I was at the warehouse and met my guy. I showed him the picture of the graphics in question. He took one look at it and told me he was absolutely certain he had packed it. Without even checking his paperwork he recounted the carton he packed it in, the counter he had placed the carton in and the crate number it was placed in. He sounded awfully sure of himself.

We got the client on the phone again. I told him exactly what my warehouseman had said. After a long pause on the other end, I hear “carton?”  And in the background I hear someone else say, “Here’s a small carton that isn’t opened.”

Let’s just say that my client felt pretty small at this point. He didn’t think they’d be packed in such a small carton.

I’m betting I’m not the only one who’s had this happen. Actually, it’s not the first time it’s happened to me. It’s just the first time it’s happened at such a great distance and with a potential for such a great expense to fix. Traveling to Europe on a Sunday afternoon to drop off a graphic wasn’t in my plans for that weekend.

On the drive back home from our shop that Sunday, I was thinking about what we had learned. I came away learning several things:

I learned that when it absolutely, positively has to happen, we can mobilize the forces to make it happen. In a matter of minutes – very early on a Sunday morning – we had close to a dozen people involved in saving this client’s show. And we were prepared to hand deliver the solution half a world away.

I learned that our process works. We have very specific processes to document every detail of our show services logistics. In a moment like this, having access to that information was critical.

I learned that our people are very good at what they do. The level of detail that both the account manager and warehouseman recalled left no doubt in my mind that the graphics had to be at the show. That gives you a lot of confidence to call your client back and make sure they really did check everywhere.

On Monday morning, I pulled the company together to share this story, and share what I had learned. And to assure them that if we continue to do what we do, and do it as well as we did in this case, not only will we survive these tough times, but we will be very successful when we come out of this.

Not a bad lesson for a Sunday morning. See you on the show floor.

Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 28 years, as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house executive. He is a partner in the tradeshow and event marketing firm Reveal. He can be reached at jobermeyer@revealexhibits.com.

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