Learn how to protect exhibit property and prevent
show-floor theft by following these tips and tricks. By Candy Adams
hen it comes to trade show theft, I've seen it all: freight stolen from unlocked trailers in marshaling yards, goods lifted from in-booth meeting rooms, and products taken from rolling display cases en route to the dock after shows.
In fact, exhibit valuables – products, expensive audiovisual or computer equipment, giveaways, etc. – can disappear from the trade show floor (or even the advance warehouse) at any time and with little to no recourse for the exhibitor. That's because the terms and conditions found in the material-handling agreement and uniform material handling form (UMHA) in the exhibitor services manual start with the disclaimer, "You are entering a contract which limits your possible recovery in case of loss or damage."
While that's certainly an unsettling tidbit, most of the common security problems on the trade show floor can be avoided. So here are several deterrents you can put in the way of sticky-fingered trade show thieves before your booth properties end up on eBay and your high-value giveaways on an episode of "Pawn Stars."
Prepare for the Worst
For starters, don't wait until you're at the show to plan your exhibit security. The time to worry about losing your valuables at a show is before the show. Here are some steps I follow to keep track of my items:
Make a manifest.
Compile the serial numbers and replacement values of all items, and take photographs of every element included in your shipment. I even include build sheets of prototypes or products that don't have serial numbers. This information can be used at the show as a checklist to verify that everything shipped has arrived. A manifest is also useful if you have to file an insurance claim.
Purchase door-to-door insurance.
It's no secret that possessions can get damaged or stolen during shipping and while they're on the show floor, so insure your property "door to door." This type of policy will cover the valuation placed on the items you're shipping (minus any coverage limits and/or deductibles) from the time they're placed on the trailer to the time they return to the dock. That means your freight is covered on the way to the show, at the show, and after the show until it's delivered to its final destination.
You can get this all-risk insurance by purchasing a per-show policy or adding a show rider to your existing corporate insurance policy. Talk to your company's risk-management or accounting department to find out what your corporate insurance policy covers, as well as limits of liability, deductibles, and the documentation required to file a claim in case of loss, damage, or theft.
Pack it to protect it.
Before shipping anything to a show, really think about how you'll pack your valuables. "A few steps can be taken before arriving at the show to protect your investment," says Ray Suppe, director of security for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "For instance, do not label your shipments with the exact contents, and don't use the manufacturer's box for expensive items like televisions."
With that in mind, I've learned to mislabel, number, code, or disguise shipping boxes that contain pricey items. For example, I might label a crate containing flatscreen monitors "box 1 of 4." If I have to ship things like TVs in the original boxes, I place them in large, palletized cardboard containers called D-containers, and then stretch wrap and strap them to their pallet. If D-containers are unavailable, I simply use black stretch wrap to obscure the contents.
After losing valuable, working products to thieves at shows over the years, I now use nonworking products or empty boxes for displays whenever possible. That way, I have a nice-looking assemblage of items without putting any actual products at risk during show hours.
However, if you need to demonstrate functional products, figure out how you can best protect them. That could mean securing them with locking titanium security cables, encasing them in Lucite or lockable showcases, or bolting them to your exhibit counters. I've even used industrial-strength hook-and-loop fastener that's so strong that the bond between the male and female pieces has to be pried apart using a screwdriver or pliers.
From the get-go, show managers are very upfront about their responsibility regarding show-floor security. The booth-space contract will generally state that show management, the building operator, the GSC, and the contract security company provide only perimeter security. In the exhibitor services manual, some trade show managers don't even refer to the people they have stationed at the doors of the hall as "guards," but rather "24-hour perimeter badge checkers for the exhibit floor," and that they are "not intended as individual security for booth and exhibit materials." So, what is an exhibitor to do?
For starters, be mindful of your surroundings. Keep an eye out for things and people that just don't look right. This can be anything from people loitering on the show floor, not wearing proper badges or identification, or wearing inappropriate clothing for the climate under which items could be hidden (such as a man wearing a trench coat at a summer show in Orlando, FL). Report anything unusual as quickly as possible, either by using the house phones located on the permanent walls of the convention center or contacting a member of the venue's in-house security team.
Next, conceal all valuable items, including products, giveaways, tablets, monitors, etc. Leave expensive items in shipping boxes in your booth space as long as possible during setup to decrease the amount of time they spend out in the open.
Finally, if you have items that you don't need right away, such as surplus giveaways, don't store them in crates or cartons that have "Empty" labels on them. The label tells the GSC that the crate is, well, empty, and hence has nothing of value in it. So if it comes back from storage empty, there's nothing missing as far as it's concerned – even if you packed it full of extra tchotchkes before sending it off.
Instead, take advantage of what is called accessible storage. This service is arranged by the GSC's exhibitor service desk personnel, who will give you special "Access Storage" labels and arrange for pickup and delivery of any items you wish to store during the show. The locked storage area is typically a room or trailer on the dock, and is only accessible by the teamster in charge of securing the property being stored. Material handlers will transport your items to and from the storage area when you need them. Naturally, there are a number of additional costs associated with this type of secured storage, including a setup charge, storage fees, an hourly charge assessed if/when the items in storage are accessed by an exhibitor (via the teamster), and a fee to return the items after the show ends.
What's more, you're now paying twice to store your nonempty cartons, since you've already paid for all inbound weight by the pound as part of your material handling/drayage fee. The good news, however, is that items placed in accessible storage are generally returned first, after the aisle carpet is removed and before any other boxes, cartons, cases, crates, or pallets are moved in, since the GSC doesn't want to be held responsible for exhibitors' valuables.
Show Floor: After Dark
Keeping an eye on your stuff is relatively simple during the day since you – or your booth staff – will be in the exhibit. It's a different story when the lights go out, as exhibits are not designed to keep out thieves. In fact, I was once told the locks on all the exhibit properties could be opened by one of about a dozen commonly available keys. It takes a relatively short amount of time for most laborers to collect a full set of keys, meaning they have access to just about any exhibit without the use of a ladder or even a pry bar.
Most exhibitors will try one or more of the following four things: 1) hide valuables in the exhibit in hopes that thieves don't have time to ransack the booth and find them, 2) put valuables somewhere safe, 3) guard them in the exhibit, or 4) get 24-hour surveillance. Here's why some of these options work better than others.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen exhibitors tuck their valuables under a draped table in their booth, under a tarp or tablecloth, or behind their exhibit. Then they are surprised when the items go missing.
My favorite was an exhibitor who put one strip of bright yellow barricade tape that said "Do Not Cross This Line" at waist height around the perimeter of her exhibit, thinking it would somehow deter would-be thieves. Personally, I think it would have been simpler to have a large foam arrow with the text: "Look! The valuables are hiding in here!"
If you have small, high-priced items that are portable, you may want to take them with you when you leave the exhibit each night. I often carry stuff back to my hotel room for overnight safekeeping. I've had roller-board suitcases full of small items like tablet computers and mobile devices that I've schlepped back and forth daily. But, a word of advice from someone who found out the hard way: Don't use the in-room safe. The hotel's housekeeping and security staff have override codes to open the digital safes when guests accidentally lock them or forget the codes. And for those older, keyed safes, hotel staff generally has access to skeleton keys for the same reason. But it's safer to assume that "bad guys" also have access to these keys. Bottom line, this method might not be suitable for high-value items.
I'm not a fan of the typical "rent-a-guard" security (often presented as an option to contract by the hour via a form in the exhibitor service manual). There are a number of reasons why: 1) You don't know how/if they've been vetted by the security companies as to their criminal backgrounds or financial situations, which can mean that you have just hired a fox to guard your henhouse; 2) this job is often a second job, during which your guard plans on sleeping or studying and not taking his or her duties to protect your exhibit properties seriously; and 3) on numerous occasions, I've arrived at my exhibit to find my guard has gone AWOL.
If I have items that are too large to remove from the booth for safekeeping but are irreplaceable (like prototype supercomputers), I contract off-duty or retired police officers, which are generally licensed to carry a weapon, to guard these high-value items. Yes, these officers are more expensive per hour than the typical senior citizen or student you can order from the exhibitor services manual, but they are professionals who have made a career of serving and protecting.
Having 24-hour security cameras or simple computer webcams in your booth can deter thieves and/or document any loss, but catching the thief and retrieving the stolen property is a long shot.
Even with all these safeguards in place, show-floor thievery can still happen. What's worse, it's very difficult, if not downright impossible, to get show management, the GSC, or the show's security company to accept any financial responsibility for the theft of exhibit property. Local police may make a report that you can use to file an insurance claim, but will generally do little investigation of show-floor losses. However, if you reduce the curb appeal of your shipments, store valuables in locked areas, and keep an eye on your stuff throughout the trade show, thieves will hopefully realize your items aren't worth the trouble, and everything you shipped to the show will return home, safe and sound.