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exhibiting 101
Eight Tips for Exhibit Rental
Are you planning to rent your next exhibit? Before signing on the dotted line, check out these eight tips to help you avoid common exhibit-rental pitfalls. By Candy Adams
The industry rule of thumb is that renting an exhibit makes financial sense if you're just going to use it once or twice, since a one-time exhibit rental generally costs about one-third of an equivalent new build. Renting can also allow you to avoid the costs and headaches of long-term storage, reconfiguration for multiple shows, and refurbishment efforts. Having said that, renting a trade show exhibit isn't as simple as renting a tuxedo. And if you're not thorough, the process could result in unexpected costs and last-minute hiccups. So if you're considering rental options, here are eight tips to help you avoid common problems.

1. Start with a detailed RFP.
The more information you can include in your request for proposal (RFP) about your strategic, logistical, and tactical expectations, the better. And supply a copy of (or link to) any internal stylebooks you have regarding details and parameters on preferred fonts, corporate logos and colors, etc.

In addition, include information regarding electrical needs and wire management. For example, a recent rental RFP I distributed included photos of the interactive equipment we needed to showcase, the footprints of the equipment and required traffic areas around them, and the wiring requirements for all of the electrical components. I also explained what graphics were needed near the equipment to facilitate attendee education. All this detail greatly reduced the time spent answering questions after I distributed the RFP, and I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't get a single "no bid" response.

2. Ask for all-inclusive pricing.
Request that the exhibit house's proposal be just as detailed as your RFP. Ask for all-inclusive, line-item descriptions and costs to be included in the proposal to avoid unexpected overages. For example, tax on exhibit rentals can add up to 10 percent to the final bill, but often, taxes are not quoted in the budget phase of the project. And in some states, rental properties that are only used out of state or out of the country are not taxed. So determine whether taxes will be charged, as well as how much you need to budget for this expense.

Also inquire about additional fees if you use a credit card to pay your rental bill; some vendors pass on credit-card costs of 3 to 5 percent to the renter. (There are 10 states that ban these surcharges: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas.) Some of my clients have also been hit with bank fees and currency-exchange fees when paying via wire transfer.

Finally, ask for estimates of the ancillary services you'll need to support the rental. For example, request the number, weight, and dimensions of the shipping cases or pallets for the rental exhibit so you can estimate shipping and material-handling costs. Also find out the amount of electrical power required to support the exhibit's structural lighting, and whether you'll need forklifts or rigging to set up and dismantle the property.

3. Pad your labor estimate.
A few years ago, when a client of mine was negotiating the details of a rental structure with his exhibit house, he disclosed his total show budget, including money allocated for products and services not directly related to the structure itself, such as booth-space rental, show services, shipping, promotion, and personnel expenses. To maximize the amount of money allocated for the rental itself (and subsequently increase his 10-percent commission), the account executive estimated only 125 hours of labor on a setup and dismantle that should have been estimated at about 400 hours. The final labor bill tallied 396 hours, but based on the contract my client had signed, he was stuck with the bill for the difference in cost between 125 hours and 396 hours.

To be safe, add 20 to 25 percent to whatever estimate your exhibit house provides regarding the number of labor hours required for installation and dismantle (I&D). Better yet, if the exhibit house providing your rental wants to secure your I&D labor through one of its preferred vendors (or if it is a financial partner with an exhibitor-appointed contractor), negotiate payment of a flat fee based on its estimated number of hours, rather than paying your own I&D bill, which can fluctuate from show to show and bust your budget.

4. Compare the original proposal to your rental agreement.
I recently received a rental agreement from an exhibit house that did not match the proposal it originally sent me. The proposal included renderings of a huge graphic map my client and I had requested in the RFP. However, the rendering included in the rental agreement had shrunk the map to about half its original size. I didn't sign until the contract was revised to include the map's original dimensions, and I learned to always reference both the proposal and the visuals that back it up before signing on the dotted line.

I've also been disappointed by other cost-cutting measures taken by exhibit houses, such as last-minute substitutions of the mounting materials for graphics from Sintra to foam core, and inferior fabric signs rather than the name-brand elements that had been specified in the proposal. To prevent exhibit houses from cutting corners at my expense, I've learned to put a line in the agreement specifying "no substitution of specified materials without prior approval."

5. Check your documentation.
I've faced various challenges during setup due to exhibit houses that didn't even bother to update their rental exhibit's setup instructions. One vendor believed it was acceptable to just put big red Xs over the items not being used for our setup on an old set of drawings and denote the correct locations for exhibit properties with arrows. It looked like a sketch from a football playbook, with slash marks and arrows going every which way.

Another exhibit house wouldn't provide a scaled exhibit floor plan for me to use when ordering my electrical drops because it wasn't ordering the electrical power on my behalf and making a profit on the turnkey fee. I now routinely list this requirement in my initial RFP, along with a specific request for full-size setup drawings and detailed setup instructions, not just emailed letter-sized PDF drawings that are almost impossible to read in dim show lighting.

6. Have an expert on site.
Since you won't know how to set up your rental exhibit the first time you use it, make sure your rental costs include having a dedicated labor supervisor from the exhibit house on site during setup. If you're sharing this supervisor with another exhibitor at the show, ensure that your rental agreement states you will only pay a fairly prorated portion of the labor supervisor's wages, travel, and on-site expenses. When I was a rookie many years ago, an exhibitor-appointed contractor told me that billing multiple clients for the full amount of a labor supervisor's time and travel expenses was normal, regardless of the fact that supervisors often split their time among several exhibitors. In fact, this particular contractor told me to "Get over it." I never did.

Additionally, if your rental exhibit is large and/or complex and you have worked closely with your exhibit-house account executive throughout the rental process, it can be helpful for him or her to be on site as well, especially if you're not going to attend setup or are managing other ancillary events. Your account executive will typically know certain details about the exhibit that your dedicated labor supervisor may not.

7. Request a sneak peek.
Set specific dates for progress milestones that need to be met, leading up to a date for a trial exhibit setup. Stipulate in your rental agreement that you want to see the exhibit at least one week before it ships to make sure that it meets your requirements.

While any properties being sent to the advance warehouse probably won't be available at your exhibit preview, it's within your right to request that photos of these advance-shipped items be sent to you for a virtual preview before they leave the exhibit house. But expect that everything else for your rental will be there for you to see and approve prior to shipping.

At these previews, I've been able to spot various problems, including counter tops that were too small to accommodate products. I've also mitigated problems by adding shelving in closets to maximize storage, having wire-management holes drilled into counter tops to accommodate electrical cables, and enlarging the font on graphics that were too small to read.

8. Time it right.
I had an exhibit house that once "forgot" to inform me that the property I'd rented would be on the road with another exhibitor right before I needed it. As luck would have it, that property didn't make it back in time for inventory, a trial setup, or refurbishment. In fact, it didn't arrive until the day before it was supposed to ship to my show. That's cutting it a little too close for comfort.

As renters, exhibitors are within their rights to ask whether or not the exhibits they'll be renting will be used by other clients immediately prior to their anticipated rental periods. Find out how many structural and aesthetic changes need to be made during the time between the previous client's rental period and yours. And ask about the exhibit house's usual turnaround time to make sure you can still comfortably schedule a preview – with sufficient time to make any necessary changes – before your rental is scheduled to ship out. It obviously depends on the size and complexity of the structure, but most exhibit houses I've worked with like a minimum of two full days to receive, inventory, and set up a 20-by-20-foot exhibit and do any minor touchups before a preview, along with another two days after the preview to incorporate any changes and manifest and repack the exhibit for shipment.

Renting isn't right for every program, but it's an option that has many benefits and minimal drawbacks. Follow these tips, get everything in writing, and plan a preview with enough time to correct errors, and you'll be well on your way to a successful rental experience. E

Candy Adams
"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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