Despite your best efforts, it's impossible to plan for everything that could occur at a trade show. Read on for examples of worst-case scenarios and what to do if they happen to you. By Candy Adams
arly in my exhibit-management career, I was told there was no problem that couldn't be resolved as long as no one died. Luckily, no one has died in my booth. Yet. What it really means is that no matter how dire the situation appears to be, it's not the end of the world. And that's good advice, because sooner or later, something bad and completely unexpected is going to take place at your trade show. A monkey wrench is going to be tossed into the middle of your meticulous planning and you're going to say, "Why didn't I think through what I'd do if [insert your personal calamity here] happened so I could be ready for it?"
With that in mind, I'm sharing some of the most common trade show worst-case scenarios, along with advice on how to deal with them.
Is There a Doctor in the House?
At a show in San Francisco years ago, my boss had what he thought was a heart attack in our exhibit. I headed for the closest house phone, told the operator my position, and the paramedics arrived almost immediately. They got him on a gurney and transported him to a local hospital, where doctors diagnosed the real cause of his chest pain: acid reflux.
Should someone get hurt in your exhibit, find the venue's emergency responders and get them to your booth as soon as possible. To do that, locate the house phone, which will be mounted on a permanent wall (as opposed to a movable air wall) of the exhibit hall, and follow the instructions on the phone. They will either direct you to dial an emergency number or instruct you to simply pick up the handset to connect with the operator. Take note of the hall name and your booth number when calling so you can direct the responders to your space. If you are trained in CPR or the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) and the situation deems it necessary, put your skills to use. Most major hotels and convention centers now have AEDs, which are usually marked by visible signage posted above the devices. Otherwise, wait with the injured person until the venue's emergency responders arrive.
Fire in the Hall
I've had a couple in-booth fires, including one instance where the brakes of a truck overheated as it backed into the exhibit space to unload a pad-wrapped exhibit. Since then, I've gotten smarter about reading the fire-safety rules printed in the exhibitor services manual. The three main things to watch out for are: 1) halogen lights that might overheat, explode, and/or melt whatever's nearby, 2) equipment that could overheat with insufficient ventilation, and 3) overloaded electrical sockets (e.g., power strips, surge protectors, and cube taps).
When you see smoke or notice an acrid electrical smell on the show floor, first go to the nearest house phone and follow the phone's instructions. Next, grab a fire extinguisher. I keep a 5-pound ABC dry-chemical fire extinguisher in my booth just in case because it's multipurpose and will work on live electrical equipment, flammable liquids, and common combustibles. Don't just buy one and stick it in your booth. Read the label on the fire extinguisher before you need it. Familiarize yourself with pulling the pin, aiming it at the base of the fire, and squeezing the handle to spray the fire source so you can spring into action when needed.
Water, Water Everywhere
I've had water emergencies three times in my career. The first happened at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. During a torrential downpour, the ceiling began to leak and my exhibit became waterlogged. The second instance occurred when my exhibit was next to the freight doors at Cobo Center in Detroit. Snow blew through the doors and soaked my carpet, pad, and under-carpet electrical. And the third incident was a result of bad plumbing to a coffee cart at Salt Lake City's Salt Palace. Regardless of the water source, you have only two actions to take: Stop the water from coming into your exhibit, and dry up what's already there.
In the event of a huge downpour or large leak at Javits, big tarps are used that hang from the ceiling to drain excess water into tubes that then direct it to barrels placed between the building's support pillars. Until we could get one of these plastic "diapers" placed above our exhibit, we moved wastebaskets around to catch the worst of the deluge. And, to make light of our in-booth monsoon, our staff greeted visitors with open umbrellas as they came into our booth. At Cobo Center, when we informed the show manager that snowdrifts were piling up in our exhibit, we were quickly issued a snow shovel by the general services contractor (GSC) and also used Visqueen to erect a temporary snow fence until the freight doors were closed. And at Salt Palace, a plumber fixed the bad valve, and a labor crew pulled up the soggy carpet and pad. The GSC arranged for the facility's industrial fans to be placed under the carpet, replaced the carpet pad, and got the carpet re-laid in time for show opening.
When it comes to water-related emergencies, time is of the essence. Contact a GSC rep as soon as you notice signs of danger because he or she can spring into action and contact the facilities people to turn off the water if necessary. The GSC will also get labor to help tear up soggy carpet and pad and check on damage to any under-carpet wiring before the drippy disaster turns into a full-blown electrical emergency.
Have You Seen My Freight?
One of the most helpless feelings I've ever had was years ago when my exhibit freight didn't appear at a show. I checked the confirmation paperwork, which stated my targeted inbound date and time. When I checked with my carrier's dispatch, it hadn't heard from the driver in a couple of days. The carrier followed up with the state highway patrol along the driver's route, and discovered that his rig had been towed after it was left parked along the side of a highway. The driver had experienced chest pains and flagged down a ride to the hospital where he was taken into surgery. Fortunately, the carrier dispatched another driver to retrieve the towed trailer with our booth properties and deliver it to the exhibit hall. The GSC worked with us to get material handlers to unload the trailer and have labor on call for an all-night setup.
To prevent late or missing freight from destroying your best-laid plans, always have the all-hours phone number of your carrier's dispatcher as well as your shipping confirmation and tracking (PRO) number on hand. You'll need all three pieces of information when you call the transportation carrier's dispatcher. Keep a log of everyone you talk to (whether it be the carrier, the GSC's on-site freight supervisor, or your shipping agent), and document when and what they told you. And it doesn't hurt to start exploring the viability of any back-up plans while you try to track down your shipment. If a rental or replacement exhibit is a possibility, be ready to put that plan into action the second you discover your freight is MIA.
What, exactly, do you do if your graphics are missing, damaged, or require wording changes? Or what if the graphics you received are for the wrong exhibit property or product? The solution
can vary based on whether you have access to the graphics files to reproduce them, the time available to get them reproduced and installed, and a detailed inventory of the number and type of graphics you need.
With enough time, your exhibit house may be able to produce and ship replacement graphics. If there's not time for that, find out if there are local resources for printing, such as the GSC's print shop or even a FedEx Kinko's store. Both places can at least print mounted posters to get you by. To circumvent graphics-related disasters, always travel with the graphics files on CDs or USB drives, or at the very least know where the files are stored back at the office (such as on a shared server or in the cloud) so someone there can assist you in the event of an emergency.
While preparing for a show two years ago in Canada, immigration officials decided not to issue travel visas to people from the Middle East. My clients at the time – Saudi Arabians – were denied visas, meaning I was left with no exhibit staff to work the booth. I scrambled up anyone from the company that held dual citizenship with either Canada or the United States (and therefore didn't need travel visas). I also found U.S. partners that were affiliated with my client's company to help bear the booth-staffing burden. We were still understaffed, but we made it through.
That experience has made me aware of the sometimes-fragile political relationships that can have serious repercussions on international shows. I've found show management to be especially helpful in these instances, waiving late-change fees for housing and/or badging when situations like this occur. The trick is to be aware of what's going on in the country or region where you'll be exhibiting. If you suspect any political unrest or changes to government policy might impact your show, start developing a contingency plan and contact show management immediately to see what assistance it may be able to provide. It's also a good idea to encourage staffers to file visa paperwork early so you'll know sooner rather than later whether those visas will be granted.
Oh My God
Fortunately, I've never experienced an act of God at a show. But there are some things none of us, including show management, can plan for such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or manmade crises such as a government shutdown. Since these things can happen at a moment's notice, it's important to familiarize yourself with show management's communication plan. Find out if it will post updates/cancelations on social media, the show website, via email or text, etc. Then determine how you will notify employees and exhibit staff – many of whom may already be en route when disaster strikes – of any changes.
Another good habit to adopt is soliciting personal cellphone numbers and emergency-contact information for your entire exhibit staff. And establish and communicate an emergency evacuation plan for what to do and where to go should a bomb threat or worse occur during the show. The moments immediately following a disaster are often chaotic, so having a basic plan in place that allows you to do a head count and communicate next steps can mean the difference between a safe and efficient exit and a lengthy, stressful process of contacting staffers to establish their well-being and disseminate information.
We all know Murphy's Law, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." But thinking ahead and devising a counterattack is part of a more important exhibiting law – always be prepared.