Editor’s note: In January, Exhibit City News will begin publishing a three-part series on the Installation and Dismantle segment of the tradeshow industry. I&D has gone through tremendous changes over the past few decades, even more than the face-to-face industry as a whole. With hundreds of millions of dollars being spent yearly, it is important to know…Who’s On Your Crew.
This article is an introduction to the series and will touch on a number of topics that will be discussed in greater detail throughout the three-part publication.
Installation and dismantle (I&D) labor has evolved as an industry to keep up with the changing demands of exhibitors. Simply classifying show floor activities as labor is too generalized.
As designs have become more sophisticated and companies more budget conscious, the men and women of the I&D community have had to increase their knowledge, not only on changes in materials and its usage, but of efficient processes and its effect on customer budgets.
Modern day I&D work has its roots in New York, Chicago and other Northeastern cities during the 1930s. Window dressers in both cities created and assembled displays for famous retailers like Macy’s, Saks and Marshall Fields. Just like today’s modern exhibits, these window displays were designed and built to promote the latest fashions and accessories. Even renowned industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, spent a portion of his illustrious career as a window dresser at Macy’s, Wannamakers and Saks in Manhattan.
Chicago expanded and refined the craft with the completion of the International Amphitheater in 1934. The Amphitheater was constructed adjacent to the famous Stock Yards to host the International Livestock Exposition, which quickly established Chicago as the convention capital of the world. The International Amphitheater hosted some of the world’s largest conventions, until McCormick Place was built in the 1960s.
“It was exciting to be part of the exhibit industry during the rise of McCormick Place,” said Tom Bacha, president of Metro Exhibit. “No other convention center had the capacity for the mega-show or ability to host several simultaneous events. McCormick Place’s design changed the industry forever. No longer were exhibit designers and builders confined to small venues. The opportunity to create exhibits on a scale not seen before pushed every aspect of our industry from design to I&D labor.”
With the advent of the mega convention centers came the opportunity to refine the I&D profession. Industry pioneers like Karl Birsa (CB Display Services), Brad Knox (KIDS), Andy Codomo (Sho-Aids) and others, made I&D a respectable profession and a valued added service for exhibit builders and exhibitors.
As the 1970s came to a close, Jack McEntee changed the landscape with the formation of I&D Inc., which later evolved into NthDegree. I&D Inc. offered exhibitors a choice in labor contractors. McEntee and his crews are credited with bringing gang boxes inside convention centers to better service their customers. Today, Nth Degree is still one of the most prominent and professional labor service providers. Many of today’s I&D labor professional began with Nth Degree, and continue its legacy of providing quality services on the show floor.
Expansion in the West, especially in Las Vegas, Nev., provided competition to McCormick Place’s prominence in the convention industry. Las Vegas provided work rules that allowed for flexibility and challenged traditional separation in labor jurisdictions. Work rules, hotel capacity and the ever-expanding convention centers were successfully combined when it came to attracting larger events to the Southwest.
As companies experienced the rewards of exhibiting at tradeshows, the demand for I&D services increased dramatically. Exhibit builders seeking to enhance their value to exhibiting companies partnered with I&D companies to provide turnkey solutions to their clients. The demand, combined with a low cost of entry into the market, spurred an increase in the number of independent labor contractors around the United States.
The growth in exhibit marketing did create its own set of challenges for tradeshow labor companies as well as exhibitors. With the expansion in the number of tradeshows and an increase in the number and size of convention centers, a supply gap was created for qualified I&D professionals. In efforts to fill the manpower requirements, labor calls were filled with individuals who had limited or no experience in setting up exhibits. In an attempt to improve the customer experience, I&D companies recruited workers from competitors based on experience and knowledge of materials and work rules.
Gary Sain, CEO of Visit Orlando, commented on Orlando’s ability to meet the demand for quality labor.
“Orlando has always invested heavily in attracting the best if the best, when it comes to people,” said Sain. “We know that it is our responsibility to train and develop the skilled, service-minded individuals that are vital to successful events. Our greatest asset is our people and these service-minded individuals.”
The 1990s brought unprecedented growth to the U.S. economy and the convention industry. Exhibit builders and I&D contractors were still stretched thin from a quality of labor stand point. Telecom, technology and the internet created new industries, further increasing the demands on the exhibit industry. Shows like Comdex and CES couldn’t sell exhibit space fast enough. The growth seemed unstoppable.
Then came September 11, 2001.
The convention and tradeshow industry was once considered to be a recession-proof. In retrospect, it became obvious that war and terrorism negatively affect our business. We saw the impact of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Demand for exhibit-related services decreased noticeably, but the direction reversed and positioned itself for growth over the next 10 years.
September 11 was the worst terrorist attack in history. Given the fact that the 9/11 terrorists used commercial airlines as their weapons of choice, convention goers did not feel that mode of transportation was safe anymore. Within 18 months, the TSA increased safety precautions at airports and the tradeshow industry recovered.
As the economy recouped after 9/11, competition in the tradeshow industry increased. This raised the bar on providing quality labor throughout the country. The call to raise the level of service on the show floor was answered by the Exhibitor Appointed Contractor Association (EACA). Formed in the late 1990s by Jim Wurm, executive director, the EACA worked directly with exhibitor appointed contractors to improve the client experience, establish best practices and improve communication between contractors, associations, customers and organized labor. The action of EACA brought a new level of professionalism to the I&D trades.
“One of the driving forces behind the formation of the EACA in the late ‘90s was the emergence of the EAC fee,” said Wurm. “The EACA saw the exhibitor appointed contractor (EAC) fee as an impediment to an exhibitor’s choice for selecting their own I&D contractor. The fee, as much as $500, was essentially a surcharge on the exhibitor’s I&D service charges and penalized them for hiring anyone but the general contractor.”
As time went on, efforts to differentiate offerings brought innovation and expansion to traditionally fragmented service offerings. Rather than compete strictly on price, EACs began including value added items to their menu of services. Many I&D service providers began offering management and logistic services. Others began competing with exhibit builders by offering rental packages, flooring and even audio visual equipment.
As our industry emerged from the recession of 2001, exhibitors kept a grip on their budgets and were not willing to accept certain services and associated fees that were common through the 1980s and 1990s. Two of the casualties of the 2001 recession were show site runners and Flat Fee Supervision. Exhibitors felt that greater labor and material planning was required for their program, eliminating the need for runners. Also common were Supervision Fees of 25 – 35 percent, which were calculated as a percentage of the entire labor invoice. Exhibit managers felt that with personnel on site garnering an hourly rate, flat fees were only established to increase margins and had very little to do with actual supervision.
As exhibiting companies challenged traditional profit margins, I&D contractors expanded into peripheral work including permanent installations, retail environments and event production.
“When the work led off the tradeshow floor, we staffed up, tooled up and dove into every project that came our way,” said Melinda Stewart, owner of OnSite Exhibitor Services. “Some of our non-traditional tradeshow work includes themed murals, welded art projects weighing thousands of pounds and mounted permanent signs on the tops of hospitals or a convention center.”
As the first decade of the millennium came to a close, the greatest financial crisis since the great depression changed business forever. Unlike the recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s, this crisis was not a euphoria-based recession. The difficulties experienced now were rooted in our financial system. The management tools and business strategies required to survive, and subsequently thrive, were different and required tactical expertise.
I&D companies became finance companies as exhibit builders and exhibitors leveraged the economic conditions to their advantage. EACs were the cheapest form of finance around. Terms of “zero down” and “Net 90 Days” were not uncommon. Add this to the restricted lending practices of surviving banks and it further increases the stress of running a labor company.
I&D has seen its share of changes throughout its inception. Management has become experienced in periods of high growth and economic down downturn. Resilient owners and managers have survived, and grown, while others were not as fortunate.
“I’ve experienced three recessions affecting the I&D industry,” said Brian Phebus, owner of Metro Exhibit Corp. “Many of my competitors have gone away despite their knowledge of our industry. Keeping a pulse on a volatile economy and striving to improve the quality of labor has to be a priority if you’re going to survive.”
Although we don’t know what the future holds for today’s I&D companies, we do know that new companies will sprout and some of the names today will fade into memory. Regardless of their fate, I&D remains an important part of every successful tradeshow marketing program.