Learn the ins and outs of forced freight, including what it is and how to avoid it at your next trade show.
The first time forced freight was explained to me, I was told to think of it as the general service contractor pushing a huge broom across the show floor and shoving all the leftover exhibit properties out the hall's back door, onto the docks, and into trucks headed to the GSC's warehouse to be held for ransom. While that mental picture tells you what is happening when freight is forced, it doesn't tell the whole story.
When the trade show organizer signs the contract with the convention or hotel venue, there is a mandatory cutoff time for use of the premises. This is necessary to make the venue available, in its original ready-to-use state, to the next client who will be renting it. It's the responsibility of the show organizer to have the GSC remove all exhibit properties left on the show floor to be able to clean up the facility. And by virtue of the material-handling contract between the GSC and exhibitors, the GSC has the right to remove all freight left on the show floor after a named date and time. That's when freight is forced.
Here, I'll explain the phenomenon, why it occurs, how it affects exhibitors, and the steps that will decrease the chances of it happening to you.
If you ask the GSC why forced freight happens, it will likely tell you that exhibitors' carriers don't show up on time or the exhibitor didn't turn in the uniform material-handling agreement (UMHA) — the form that permits the GSC to move an exhibitor's freight from the booth space to the designated carrier at the dock. Or, maybe the exhibitor filled in the UMHA incorrectly and named a different carrier than the one who checked in to get the freight. When that happens, the GSC can't release the shipment to the carrier that shows up at the marshaling yard, so the freight doesn't get loaded.
It's important to note that there is a box on the UMHA form that asks what the exhibitor wants done with its freight if the designated carrier doesn't show up. You can elect to have it sent to the GSC's warehouse pending further instructions, or placed on the GSC's preferred carrier. If you send it to the warehouse, the GSC or official common carrier will hold the freight until it contacts you to ask how it should be returned. If the preferred carrier handles your shipment, it will do so at rates that are most likely higher than those charged by the carrier you originally contracted.
Here are just a few of the reasons I've had freight forced:
► The GSC finished its post-show cleanup early, and decided to force the floor before the designated time.
► Inexperienced material-handling staff couldn't find the freight because they didn't know how to read the floor plan to find booth numbers.
► The hanging aisle signs and booth numbers taped on the floor were removed during teardown, before material-handling staff could locate and remove freight from the floor.
When the GSC knowingly turns away the exhibitor-selected carrier, saying that the freight can't be found, that there is no freight to pick up, or that the freight has already been picked up by another carrier, it can then force the freight onto another carrier. Even though the GSC uses additional resources (forklifts, cartage trucks, extra fuel, warehouse space and/or trailers to house the forced freight, etc.) and the subsequent fees are billed to the exhibitors, forced freight can still be a revenue source to the GSC. This is especially true when there is a profit-sharing agreement (such as a loading-allowance payment) between the GSC and the official common carrier — which will move the forced freight at inflated rates.
Aside from the planning nightmare caused by forced freight, there are numerous financial consequences including: 1) additional handling fees for loading the freight, 2) local cartage fees (for moving the forced freight from the exhibit floor to the local GSC's warehouse or official common carrier's warehouse), and 3) undiscounted or highly inflated rates if the freight ends up with the GSC's official carrier. In addition to these forced-freight fees charged by the GSC, you might also be charged any combination of the following:
► Off-Target Fees.
Some large shows are now targeting inbound shipments and outbound ones, with specified times for getting the small exhibits off the floor, then the medium-sized exhibits, and finally the large exhibits. If an exhibitor's carrier misses the stated check-in target, the exhibitor might be charged off-target fees.
► Overtime Charges.
If you aren't on site to know when your freight was loaded to the advance warehouse or on the GSC's preferred carrier, you could be charged overtime fees for your material handling.
► Waiting-Time Fees.
Your specialized transportation carrier might charge for the time it spends waiting to pick up your outbound freight above and beyond the hour allotment included in your estimate. If your freight is forced, you could end up with a hefty bill that might even include hundreds of dollars for an overnight wait.
► Aborted/Attempted Pickup Fees.
Should your carrier be turned away based on an incorrect carrier name on your UMHA, or if the GSC can't find your freight, your carrier might charge what's called an aborted pickup fee.
Beyond hard costs related to penalties and fees, you might be subjected to opportunity costs. For example, exhibit properties sometimes need to be shipped immediately for use at another show.
A delay in shipment due to forced freight can mean it won't be available for your next show, since the GSC's process of moving and sorting the forced freight, contacting the exhibitor, and getting the shipment rerouted can take weeks.
Note that if you incur fees because your carrier failed to follow instructions regarding when to check in, you have a good case for reimbursement.
Obviously, forced freight is a less than ideal situation. There are a number of things exhibitors can do to sidestep forced-freight fiascos:
► Make sure your specialized transportation carrier knows the deadline to check in to the marshaling yard or to the event facility after the show, as well as the date and time that the GSC will force the floor.
► Confirm the pickup of your outbound freight with your carrier the day before your outbound shipment is scheduled. Indicate when you will turn in the UMHA form and when your shipment will be ready to load.
► Appoint someone to be in charge of your exhibit during teardown if you are not able to personally oversee it. That person needs to understand the critical nature of completing and turning in the UMHA form and bill of lading (the contract of carriage with a carrier to move the exhibitor's freight from the show dock to the specified destination) to the GSC's service desk. Pick up a blank UMHA form and complete as much information as you can before leaving the form with your dismantle supervisor.
► Keep all of your outbound freight in close proximity to your numbered booth space to make it easier for the material-handling personnel to locate it on the show floor.
► Use well-marked shipping crates or boxes with bright-colored labels (two per piece of freight, on opposite sides) to identify your outbound freight. If you have shipments going to multiple destinations, use a different color label for each destination. Remove all old labels from the crates.
► Put at least one label on each box or carton placed on a pallet, even if the pallet will be stretch wrapped. The cartons shipped on pallets are often broken down in transit if there isn't enough room on the truck. Labeling individual boxes gives you a better chance of it all getting back on a pallet at your destination.
► Complete your UMHA form clearly and precisely. Add a phone number where an exhibitor rep can be reached 24/7 in case there are any problems. Make sure to count and recount the number of each type of freight (crates, rolls of carpet pad and carpet, skids/pallets, cartons/boxes, graphics tubes, and loose or pad-wrapped pieces) and note these counts on the UMHA and bill of lading.
► Turn in the completed, signed bill(s) of lading and UMHA at the GSC's service desk, and get a signed copy of the UMHA marked with the date and time it was received and by whom. If you're using your own designated carrier that provides its material-handling form or waybill, get a copy of this bill of lading, too, and ask for copies when you turn them in at the GSC's service desk. The tracking numbers on this paperwork are critical to tracing your shipment.
► Let your carrier know the final piece count of your shipment, noting the type of shipping container and the total number of pieces. Confirm the type of service, the estimated time of arrival, and the emergency contact number where you can be reached.
What to do When Forced Freight Happens to You
If you believe that your freight has been wrongfully forced at a show, find out everything you can from your carrier, including when the driver checked in and what he or she was told and by whom. Next, call any phone numbers you have for GSC staff, floor managers, the show manager, or your on-site dismantle rep, and ask for help reaching the show's freight supervisor and/or marshaling yard. Write down the names of the people you talk to, times at which you talk to them, and current status of your freight. Finally, find out if it's still possible to have your own carrier load the freight. If the freight is already loaded on a trailer of forced freight, get the trailer number to help expedite locating and rerouting the shipment when it arrives at the GSC's warehouse.
While there isn't any one thing you can do to absolutely guarantee that your freight is safe from being forced, simply understanding why the process happens — and making sure you've taken proactive steps to minimize the chances of it happening to you — should put you ahead of the pack at your next trade show. E
CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com