Installation and dismantle has the potential to stop an exhibit program in its tracks. Learn the small steps you can take to ensure a seamless setup – and drama-free dismantle. By Candy Adams
f there's one point in the exhibiting process where Murphy's Law is bound to wreak havoc, it's during installation and dismantle. The best piece of advice I can give any rookie exhibit manager (because the veterans have already figured this out via the University of Hard Knocks) is to do whatever you can as early as you can. And even when you think you've built in sufficient time to get everything done, there's usually an unexpected snafu waiting to surprise you.
In addition to not leaving for tomorrow what can be done today, here is some sage advice to consider when it comes to exhibit setup and teardown.
I&D by Design
I&D planning should begin when your exhibit is being designed. To minimize labor hours, work with your exhibit house to determine the time hogs that eat up your on-site labor hours (and subsequently your budget, especially if I&D will be on overtime). Tasks such as intricate assembly or graphics application will generally be more cost effective (and take less time) when done in the exhibit house's shop rather than on the show floor. The more show ready you can make your booth when it's in the hands of your exhibit house, the smaller your margin of labor-crew
errors at the show.
For example, I have vinyl graphics applied at the exhibit house rather than on the show floor because: 1) the warehouse is cleaner than the show floor, 2) the graphics staff is generally more meticulous in its application of the graphics, 3) the labor to apply graphics at the exhibit house is typically cheaper than an onsite I&D crew, and 4) if there's a problem, it can be fixed before the exhibit ships to the show.
I also ask the exhibit house to install the brackets that hold any hanging monitors, or at least to measure and drill the holes for the brackets. At my last trade show, we'd designed the demonstration kiosks to just slide out of their crates, with the majority of the assembly (such as recessed lighting and monitor brackets) already in place. Even though this pre-assembled freight might take up more shipping space dimensionally, it can result in significant time and cost savings in labor on the show floor.
There can also be cost savings in determining what other equipment will be required to facilitate setup based on the exhibit design, e.g., a multistage forklift to raise heavy exhibit properties beyond what would be considered safe by laborers on ladders. You can't put a price on safety, but ancillary I&D equipment costs should be considered when designing your exhibit.
I'm a big fan of arriving at the show floor a day early to get the lay of the land (including finding the best route between my hotel and the convention center, evaluating parking options, and cruising the convention venue for the contractors' service desks, restrooms, food options, pressrooms, the show office, etc.) and verify the installation and correct placement of any under-carpet services such as electrical, Internet, and audiovisual.
I once arrived on show site to find my 20-by-30-foot booth space was marked as a 20-by-40-foot space and all the electrical outlets were in the wrong location. I've also had my electrical rotated 180 degrees from where it should have been, and another time I had no utilities because my confirmed orders had been misplaced. Thus, I always arrive a day earlier than I have to be on show site, which allows enough time to solve problems before my labor crew arrives for setup.
Timing is Everything
Most exhibitors have some history with their exhibit and can look back at past shows to determine how many labor hours they'll require. But, if it is a first-time build or rental, you will probably have to rely on the estimate of your exhibit house. It will generally offer a trial setup/preview in its shop on which you can base your I&D estimate. If not, use my formula for
booths that are at least 20-by-20 feet: Plan for one hour of total labor (including I&D) for every 8 square feet of a booth. For example, if you have a 20-by-20-foot booth (400 square feet), divide 400 by 8 and you'll come out with a total of 50 hours. Since the industry rule of thumb is that it takes twice as long to set up an exhibit (installation) than to complete teardown (dismantle), you could estimate roughly 33 hours for setup and 17 hours for teardown labor.
Do it Yourself
In the majority of exhibitor services manuals, you will find a page under the section on union labor that explains the jurisdictions of the various unions in place at the convention venue. Common union-only functions include laying electrical wiring under carpet, rigging signs and banners, and assembling exhibits that require tools. In most venues, you are allowed to circumvent the docks (and hence drayage fees) by hand carrying in some freight, and an exhibiting company's full-time employees can usually install and dismantle any exhibit in a 10-by-10-foot booth space provided it can be constructed in 30 minutes or less with no hand tools or ladders. When in doubt about what can be accomplished without hiring union labor, your best bet is to talk with the show's operations manager. If you proceed and inadvertently do work you're not supposed to do, don't be surprised if a union steward shows up to put a stop to your work.
Make the Most of It
To minimize your I&D invoice, think "straight time" rather than "overtime" or "double time" whenever possible. Union contracts have all kinds of clauses regarding what constitutes straight time versus double time, overtime, or holiday pay. Some union contracts even include nontraditional holidays such as Super Bowl Sunday and allow a holiday that falls on a weekend – such as Veteran's Day – to move to a Monday, turning what would have been a straight-time day into a holiday.
Also, most labor contractors only guarantee the start time of your labor crew if you order an 8 a.m. start. If your freight's scheduled to unload between 8 a.m. and noon and you order your labor for 12:30 p.m. after the union's lunch hour, it is considered a "will call" labor order. That means you'll have to wait until those laborers have finished their morning job (which probably took longer than expected) before they finally show up at your booth.
Labor costs will likely comprise a large chunk of your I&D invoice, so it's important to learn the following ways to avoid overtime hours.
Ship exhibit freight to the advance warehouse so it arrives on the trade show floor earlier, thus providing more straight-time setup hours. Alternatively, you can send the exhibit's carpet pad, carpet, Visqueen (clear plastic sheeting), and carpet tape to the advance warehouse. Then, ship the rest of your exhibit properties direct to site. This allows enough time for workers to install flooring before your exhibit is ready to be constructed.
Rent carpet from the GSC that will be laid on straight time as part of the carpet-rental cost, negating the need to purchase or rent carpet from an outside vendor. This also eliminates shipping costs, material-handling fees, and on-site overtime labor. But, be sure to note on your order the time at which carpet needs to be laid so it's down before the rest of your exhibit installation needs to start.
Hire more labor at the beginning of the day and drop some of the less productive workers as the day goes on.
Dismantle your booth the morning after the show as labor may be on straight time rather than evening overtime.
There are various experience levels from "still learning" apprentices to "been there, done that" journeymen who work at different pay rates within the union, and it financially benefits GSCs and exhibitor-appointed contractors (EACs) to hire the least-skilled (and lowest paid) laborer who can do the job. In cities with shallow labor pools, this could mean your crew comprises anyone from people hired through temporary agencies who've never been on a show floor to people that responded to a labor call on the street behind the convention center for a day's cash wages. But you may have noticed that labor contractors (GSCs or EACs) publish one flat hourly rate (often referred to as the "city rate" for that location) for straight time, overtime, and double time (if double time is part of that local's union contract), regardless of the skill level – or pay rate – of the person you're assigned.
Where the GSCs offer labor by the hour, most EACs providing I&D labor offer full-service packages that include planning to alleviate on-site gotchas, big-picture views of the
entire project (plus supervision), hand-picked labor, and supplies. I also find that EACs are more willing to waive the four-hour union-labor minimum when my setup only takes an hour. That said, it can make sense to use the GSC if you rent exhibit properties from it, know you'll have last-minute changes on site, and/or need variances granted.
Knowledge is Power
I can't imagine walking into an empty booth space and not finding setup drawings, photos, crate manifests, or instructions on the step-by-step process to correctly install a display to the exhibitor's expectations. I don't leave home without having a full set of my show-services orders and all setup drawings for my exhibit and any hanging signs. I also like to have a copy of the setup plan marked for dismantle with each piece of the exhibit property labeled as to which crate it resides in to simplify teardown.
Every show-service order form and supporting drawing needs to be in the hands of the labor provider, especially if you're not going to be on the show floor during I&D. If you are going to be present, talk with your crew lead and set the parameters for your role. Are you a hands-on manager, who wants to point out the location of the next panel to install, or someone who will only get involved if asked to fetch the empty labels from the service desk?
Also share with your labor crew the inventory and location of any supplies that have been shipped to the show. These may include a spare sheet or two of exhibit laminate, which can be a lifesaver if damage occurs during transit or during setup. Other items to bring include tape for your pad and carpet and return shipping, Visqueen to protect your carpet during setup, rolls of hook-and-loop fastener for hanging graphics, extra light bulbs, stretch wrap and banding, touch-up paint, and nonstreak/nonstatic cleaning supplies. By having all the exhibit-setup supplies ready, laborers won't have to go search for them on your dime. It's also important to provide your lead with a set of the keys and combinations to your gang box, counters, kiosks, and closets.
It's not Over Until it's Over
The show's over and the pressure's off, but now you have to get everything packed up and shipped out. And there's still time for something to go wrong. So to avoid the dysfunction of dismantle, follow these steps:
Plan your entire show cycle of I&D and order all the show services that you will need at the same time so nothing is missed.
At the end of your installation, confirm the day, time, and number of dismantle crew members with your labor contractor. Be sure to request any crew members you'd like to come back for dismantle by name, since they know how your exhibit came out of the crates and have a better shot at repacking it correctly.
Make copies of what I refer to as "reverse blueprints," which show the crate or pallet number and/or location where each exhibit panel, door, kiosk, etc. is to be placed for return shipping. Compare the shipping manifest to the setup prints, or in lieu of that, have your exhibit house print photos of the loaded crates and attach them inside the crates for easy viewing. Anything you can do to streamline dismantle will decrease your labor ticket's bottom line.
Have your outbound shipping documentation in hand and ready to turn in as soon as dismantle is complete. This includes the GSC's uniform material handling agreement (UMHA) that authorizes it to move your freight from your booth space and release it to the carrier named on your UMHA and bill of lading. Your truck driver will not be called to the docks to load your exhibit properties until this documentation has been turned in at the GSC's exhibitor service desk.
I&D is my favorite part of the job and where the "rubber meets the road" after months of planning. By heeding the aforementioned advice, I&D can be an exciting, and sometimes challenging, way to use your creative problem-solving skills – and hopefully thwart Murphy's best efforts to sink you.