This first installment of our two-part guide to in-booth electrical answers exhibitors' most frequently asked questions regarding electricity on the trade show floor.
Electricity. It's something we use every day at home and at work. But dealing with it in our exhibits perplexes us. There are plenty of reasons to be flummoxed – not the least of them being that most of us aren't electricians and don't deal with the nuts and bolts of power on a daily basis. So to help you navigate the nuances of ordering power for your exhibit, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked electrical-related questions I've encountered.
Where does the power at convention centers come from?
The answer to this question depends on the venue and its business model, since electrical is a revenue generator. There are three providers of power at convention venues. At some, the power and labor to install it are provided by the convention center acting as an exclusive contractor (meaning that the show manager had to hire it as part of the overall convention-center rental contract). At other venues, electrical may be provided by the show's general service contractor (GSC) or a subcontractor hired by – or sometimes owned by – the GSC (also acting in an exclusive capacity). GSCs, in turn, are hired by show management. Some convention centers offer exhibitors a number of contracting options and allow them to choose a vendor from a list of approved providers. To find out who'll be providing the electrical power and labor services at your next show, look in your exhibitor services manual under "Utilities" or on the list of official vendors.
In addition to knowing who provides power, you'll need to know where it's coming from. There are four main power sources: floor ports (square, metal covers placed on the floor 30 feet apart through which natural gas, water, telephone, and internet connections are accessed), columns, wall outlets, and overhead catwalks high above the show floor. Some convention centers, especially those that have gone through a series of additions or renovations, may have halls with a combination of sources.
I've had hanging signs with power that came from floor ports, and floor power that came from ceiling drops. Confusing? Yes, it is. And if the exhibitor services manual doesn't mention where your power will come from, ask prior to placing your order.
Will power be available 24/7 from the time I install my exhibit to when I'm done dismantling it?
Electrical power is typically "live" during exhibit installation when the power lines are laid, but if you have a large amount of power or will need an electrician to connect your equipment, you may have to request that he or she return to your booth later to turn it on. This request can be made at the electrical service desk.
On show days, power is generally turned on an hour or two before the show opens and stays on for an hour after it closes. Check your exhibitor services manual for the exact times stated by the electrical contractor. If you'll need power earlier or later than that – or if you have equipment that shouldn't be shut down, such as computers and refrigerators – you'll need to request 24-hour power. Most convention centers require you to pay extra (often up to double the price) for power that stays live the entire show.
When will my electrical power be installed in my booth?
In a carpeted exhibit, your electrical power cables (and any other under-carpet wiring) will likely be run as soon as your booth space is measured and its outline is taped off by the GSC's labor. Your electrical power order form will provide a space for you to write in when you need your electrical power in place to complete your exhibit setup. The electrical provider's scheduler will put your booth on his or her list to accommodate your time request. To save money, I write a note on my electrical form requesting that my installation not be completed on overtime if at all possible. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. But I've found that it never hurts to ask.
The electrical labor order form in your exhibitor services manual gives exhibitors the option to check a box specifying either "supervised" or "proceed without supervision." You'll need to decide if you want the electricians to lay your under-carpet electrical before you (or your installation-and-dismantle crew) arrive on site to supervise your electrical layout. If you have a complex electrical installation, I recommend checking the "supervised" box and either supervising the electrical installation yourself or delegating this to your lead I&D person, assuming he or she is familiar with the layout of your exhibit properties.
If you choose not to supervise your booth's electrical installation, the power cables will be laid by electricians based on the locations specified in the written instructions that you submitted on a floor plan or grid. If you go with the unsupervised option, instruct your labor crew to precisely measure the locations where your exhibit's electrical cables are pulled up through your carpet pad and carpet to ensure that they're in the correct locations before they begin setting up your booth. It becomes much more difficult – and expensive – to move electrical cables after exhibit properties have been placed on top of them.
Where will the electricians place the power drops in my booth space?
The location of your electrical power drops depends on the size and type of booth space you have. If you have an in-line or peninsula booth, power will automatically be dropped at the rear perimeter (known as the "rear drapeline") and center of the space. There is usually no additional labor charge for this service.
If you need power run to any other location of a linear booth (such as near the aisle or within your 10-by-10-foot space) or have a larger peninsula or island space, you'll need to submit a scaled floor plan showing your required power's orientation in relation to the front of the exhibit hall, aisles, and other booths; the location of the main drop; and the exact location and amount of power required at each additional location. To make sure your electrical drops end up where you want them, label each location with dimensions showing how far the drop should be from the outer edge of the booth space in two perpendicular directions. I also note if I will need a receptacle at the end of the power cable that will accept two plugs (duplex), four plugs (quad), or six plugs (a six-box or dog house).
A grid template is usually provided in the packet of electrical order forms you can complete, and sometimes your exhibit house provides a scaled computer-aided drafting (CAD) electrical drawing showing all of your electrical needs. The electrical provider may have its own legend for you to use when drawing in your electrical needs to denote the primary location of power and the amount of power required at each termination point. But don't bother completing this drawing with a multicolor CAD program, since multiple black-and-white copies will be made and distributed on the show floor, and your carefully executed color legend will be lost.
Can I plug in my own lighting and equipment, or does a union electrician have to complete that task?
Union jurisdictions (the "who-can-do-what" rules) vary from city to city based on union contracts. But in most cities, an exhibitor can plug in exhibit properties such as demo equipment and lighting to standard 120V outlets and can interconnect equipment (such as connecting monitors to laptops), although some venues limit the number of lights exhibitors can plug in themselves. If you have audiovisual equipment, this may come under another union's jurisdiction, so check if the Stagehands or Sign and Display union has jurisdiction over hanging and connecting AV equipment.
However, regardless of the show venue, an electrician is required for the following actions: plugging into 208V or 480V power; assembling and hanging lights on static truss; wiring and installing illuminated or rotating hanging signs; hard-wiring connections to equipment; and inspecting exhibitors' power panels. When in doubt, read your exhibitor services manual for specifics, and if you're still not clear, call the number on the electrical order form and ask to speak with the show's electrician.
For answers to more frequently asked questions regarding electricity, including how to calculate how many amps and watts your exhibit needs, check out the second installment of this two-part electrical guide.
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