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Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Stuck with a vendor that's done you wrong, but not sure when to call it quits? Here are some common reasons vendor relationships go bad. By Candy Adams
ost exhibitors don't take the termination of a vendor contract lightly, because finding a replacement is just another task that eats up valuable time and financial resources. The scenario before a breakup often progresses from "Houston, we have a problem" to "Let's sit down and discuss what's happening and why" to "We should try some things differently and see if that helps" to "Aw, crap! It's not getting any better, and we have gotta move on!"

Regardless of the difficulty of the decision and termination process, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and decide: Are you better off with that vendor, or without it?

I've had some good, bad, and ugly breakups with exhibit houses over the years. There have been amicable splits, where all parties were in agreement that the business relationship had changed and going our separate ways would work out best for everyone. In those cases, we had a written plan of action for settling all final bills, transferring documentation, and shipping the exhibit properties. Those were exceptionally smooth transitions.

But in another situation, I faced multiple problems with an exhibit house that changed hands so many times my boss and I finally agreed that it was less aggravating to just give up and walk away. The path of least resistance was to have our exhibit properties shipped directly from a trade show to our new exhibit house, which had been courting us. So we served the divorce papers (so to speak) to our old exhibit house in writing during the trade show. We notified it that our property would not be coming back, and asked it to invoice us for all outstanding charges and to have any remaining properties ready for pickup. Nobody was happy with the way that went down, and getting the last of our exhibits out of the old warehouse was a huge predicament. But in this particular case, a clean, quick break was the only viable option at that point in the game.

The specific reasons you have for ending a vendor relationship may differ from my personal experiences, but one thing is certain — you're likely not getting exactly what you want from the deal.

Irreconcilable Differences
Breaking up with your exhibit house can cause complications that you probably won't encounter with other industry vendors. After all, your exhibit house likely has both your physical exhibit properties and documentation, including inventories, graphics files, and exhibit drawings and layouts. But that shouldn't stop you from ending an unhealthy vendor relationship. There are numerous factors that come into play when determining whether to break up with an exhibit house. That said, here are some of the issues I've personally encountered in the past, all of which forced me to realize it was time to move on.
The Wrong Size. There are some exhibit houses that my clients have outgrown due to their company's acquisitions and/or mergers. And there are some exhibit houses that made it very clear by their performance that they didn't find our ongoing relationship financially lucrative enough to want to continue working together.

Just as exhibitors have a good idea of the capabilities they're looking for in an exhibit house (and the budget they have to spend), exhibit houses, too, have a profile of the clients that they're best suited to work with. For example, some exhibit houses handle everything in house, and have the bandwidth to meet the needs of a range of clients simultaneously. Smaller firms may not have the same resources. If the size isn't right on either side — due to contraction or growth — it's time to cut bait.

Win-Win Versus Win-Lose. When a relationship gets lopsided and is no longer equally beneficial to both parties, it's time to rethink the situation. To keep the relationship with your exhibit house headed in the right direction, an annual review of what is working and what is not — for both parties — is imperative.

If you have the time, conduct a post-show review with your vendors to evaluate the highlights and lowlights of each show. Use the review results to determine the changes needed to improve the effectiveness of the exhibit program moving forward.

Internal Staff Changes. Have you ever started a relationship with an exhibit house's "A" team, and as the relationship progressed, "B" and "C" players slowly and quietly replaced the people you used to love working with? All of a sudden, you find yourself spending more time getting (and keeping) the new players up to speed.
Relationships are based on the premise that all parties involved will do what they say they're going to do. But when that trust is broken, it can often be hard
to get the relationship back on an even keel.

With your exhibit program relying on the expertise of your entire team, you can't afford to constantly retrain newbies and/or micromanage them. Yes, some turnover is to be expected, but the caliber of an exhibit house's knowledge and experience shouldn't leave you feeling like the victim of a bait and switch.

Keep in mind that this particular problem can go both ways. If the exhibit-manager position within your company goes away and the duties are assigned to, say, an administrative assistant who's never been to a show, it creates a training nightmare for the exhibit house.

Location, Location, Location. The proximity of your company or trade shows to your exhibit house can be a plus or minus. I've had exhibit houses that were literally a stone's throw away from my client's offices. I've had others that were multiple states away, and everything I wanted to see was sent via digital photograph or posted on an internal website for review, which is a very different way to do an exhibit walk-through. I've also had a "chain" exhibit house close up a local office and wait until the last minute to notify clients that it was moving stored exhibit properties to a different location four hours away.

There is no simple answer to the question, "How close is close enough?" Are there constant changes to your exhibit or graphics? Do you often need to retrieve something from your exhibit crates? Are most of the shows you attend in a particular city, such as Las Vegas or Chicago? In a business where we constantly hear about the value of face-to-face contact, only you can know if two miles is too far or if 200 miles is close enough.

Trust. Relationships are based on the premise that all parties involved will do what they say they're going to do. But when that trust is broken, it can often be hard to get the relationship back on an even keel. Even if balls are dropped and apologies are made, you may end up second-guessing the motives behind the original breach of trust.
Poor Business Ethics. This is a sticky one that probably won't make me any friends, but I've personally encountered a few scenarios that were at least questionable if not downright unethical. For example, I've paid for storage space in an exhibit house's warehouse for not only the area my exhibit properties were occupying, but also the space to the center of the aisle to guarantee accessibility. I later discovered that my properties were buried and inaccessible. And to add insult to injury, I was told I'd have to pay to have another exhibitor's properties moved out of the way to access mine.

Another time, one of my clients was charged thousands of dollars to dispose of an exhibit it no longer planned to use. The exhibit house provided an invoice that listed fees for everything from renting a garbage bin and transporting the property to a landfill, to paying hazardous-waste and landfill fees. The kicker was that the exhibit house never actually disposed of the booth, and instead kept it for use as a rental.

I've even heard of exhibit houses renting exhibitors' owned properties without their permission, and charging clients for exclusive use of a trailer but loading another client's properties on it and charging them as well. The sad part is that these practices are not uncommon, according to some colleagues of mine who have worked for exhibit houses. If you suspect your vendor of the preceding practices, it might be time to find a new business partner.

The Divorce Papers
The procedure for terminating an agreement with an exhibit house can easily become a messy legal issue. Before you make any moves, review the details of your current agreement. What exactly do you need to do in order to terminate the agreement with your exhibit house? Does the termination clause have specific notice periods? Does your contract require notification by a specific date for ongoing storage or services that automatically renew? Will you have to pay for remaining unused months (like a cellphone contract)? Have your corporate lawyer read the clause before making any moves that could lead to contractual problems and/or financial and legal liability.

Depending on the situation and the contract currently in place, your company's legal advisors may or may not wish to provide any reason for the termination. They could include a "no-fault/no-finger-pointing" statement explaining that your program has changed and the partnership is no longer a good fit. Or perhaps your company has experienced a takeover or merger, and it no longer requires the exhibit house's services.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the decision to end a relationship with an exhibit house will lead to a mud-slinging divorce of sorts where the problems are willful versus negligent. That scenario usually comprises he-said/she-said accusations that might result in litigation with negative financial implications.

Potential litigation aside, your termination letter should be drafted on your official company letterhead, preferably by your legal department. It should explain your intent to dissolve your company's relationship with the exhibit house, and provide an effective date of the termination, at which point all exhibit documentation and exhibit properties will be returned or ready for shipment. Note the manner in which final payments will be made, including deadlines for invoices, evidence to substantiate the charges, and the turnaround time required to provide payment in full after receipt of the final invoice. Send the termination letter via certified mail, and include a request for acknowledgement of receipt.

We all know that there are two sides to every story of a broken relationship, and that just like there is no perfect relationship in our personal lives, it's uncommon to find one in our professional lives. But when it comes down to the bottom line and the relationship's not working, sometimes it's best to just rip off the Band-Aid and move on. E

Candy Adams, CTSM, CME, CEM, CMP, CMM,
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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