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exhibiting 101

Candy Adams,
"The Booth Mom,"
is an independent exhibit-management
consultant, trainer, speaker, writer, and an Exhibitor conference
faculty member.

ires, lost freight, natural disasters, skewered graphics . I've experienced all these and more in my 18 years in the trade show industry. No matter how much experience you have, you'll never be immune to trade show disasters, but you can prepare for some of the most common ones. Here are eight examples of common trade show snafus I've encountered, along with the lessons I learned to help me avoid - or at least survive - them in the future.

Fire in the Hall

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the exhibit. While you might think exhibit fires are a rare occurrence, I've had fires in three of my trade show booths. One was caused by poorly ventilated computers in an enclosed area; two were caused by halogen light fixtures that melted cables and graphics in my booth. The casualties from those fires included fried computer wiring, a melted graphic, and an overheated computer that was under part of Mario Andretti's last race car.

But before you get all fired up with your own exhibit inferno, consider the following lessons I learned as a result of my heated experiences.

Always keep at least one 5 A-B-C fire extinguisher (the 5 refers to the "extinguishing potential" or number of square feet the extinguisher can cover) in your exhibit. But simply having it is only half the battle. Be sure everyone staffing your booth knows where the extinguisher is located and how to use it in case of an emergency (shoot at the base of the fire and in the direction the fire is spreading).

To notify the convention center of a fire, contact the convention-center operator on a house phone or try to find a security guard with a radio. Don't dial 911 from your cell phone. That gets you an outside operator who has no idea of the layout of the halls (think how spread out some convention centers are). The call to the convention-center operator will get immediately transferred to trained security and fire-safety staff who will have the current exhibit-hall layout right in front of them.

When possible, avoid using halogen lighting. There are a lot of other options (such as LEDs) that generate adequate lighting without the heat generated by halogens.

Provide ventilation for equipment that generates a lot of heat, including computers and light fixtures.

Has Anyone Seen My Freight?

Lost freight is one of the most common trade show disasters. In fact, every exhibit manager has probably lost freight multiple times throughout his or her career. But only three times in my career has freight been lost and never turned up. Sadly, one of the containers held irreplaceable industry awards that my client had won for its new product. More often than not, my missing freight has gotten hung up in a general service contractor's advance warehouse or delivered to the wrong booth. Here are a few tips to keep your freight from going MIA at your next show.

Lost freight is a case where Murphy's Law almost always comes into play: Freight seems to disappear after normal working hours, on a weekend, or right before the show. So always get after-hours phone numbers for your shipping agent, your carrier's dispatch, and, if possible, your driver. Also make sure you know the tracking number for your shipment, so you can help your freight carrier find it quickly.

On site, check with the service desk and the freight supervisor for your area of the hall to find out if your freight has been delivered. If it has been delivered and you still don't have it, enlist the help of a floor manager, who can help you locate freight that was accidentally delivered to the wrong booth space.

Plan special procedures for shipping irreplaceable items, even if it means hand carrying them to the show and shipping your clothes.

Review your insurance coverage (including under what circumstances your exhibit materials are covered, the deductibles, co-pays, and limits of coverage for your policy), and insure your property adequately. Also ask your insurance rep what documentation you need in the event of a claim so you know what information you'd need to be compensated in the event you would need to file a claim.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

How waterproof are your shipping containers? I've had two real messes with crates left in the rain outside the convention center in Orlando, FL, and outside the Las Vegas Convention Center during a winter storm. My crates were soggy, and their doors were badly warped when I got them back. Worse yet, my cardboard cartons full of biodegradable packing peanuts had turned to soggy sludge.

Nowhere in the material-handling agreement does it say where or how your cartons, cases, crates, and pallets will be stored during the show. So consider these added precautions.

There's not a lot you can do about where your crates are stored during the show, since you're at the mercy of the GSC. Make sure the cases are water tight or that any contents are protected in plastic from potential water damage.

Consider paying extra to store your valuable freight containers in accessible storage, which is usually a dockside, enclosed trailer.

May the Force Be With You

The GSC can force your freight if your transportation carrier shows up late for pickup at the end of the show, or if the person dismantling your booth does not turn in a completed material-handling form. This means that your freight will be held in a warehouse or sent back to you via the GSC's preferred carrier - at non-discounted rates.

Forced freight can be frustrating, irritating, and downright maddening. Multiply that irritation times three; my freight was forced from the same show for the last three years. To add insult to injury, the show's GSC took it upon itself to consolidate my two shipments, going to two different states, onto one pallet. On top of that, the GSC lost one of my bills of lading. Two months later, a charge appeared on my credit card from the GSC with an additional fee for moving my "missing" freight across town to the GSC's warehouse. Here are the lessons I learned in the process.

Call the GSC as soon as you find out your freight has been forced. (My carrier notified me four days after the show ended that it was unable to get my freight from the GSC.) Do not settle for talking with the exhibitor-support-center reps at the GSC's toll-free number. (They told me if I used their carrier, my freight wouldn't be forced . sounds like extortion to me.) Ask to talk to the freight supervisor, explain your dilemma, and ask for immediate resolution.

Get a written statement from your carrier's driver(s) who were turned away, with as much detail as possible regarding what he or she was told about your shipment's availability for pickup. Contest any charges from your GSC that seem unfair, especially after getting your carrier's statements.

If forced freight is an ongoing problem at the shows you attend, let show management know about your displeasure with the outbound handling of your freight. This can help them to fix the underlying problem for future shows.

If you're not at the dismantle to manage the outbound paperwork (known as the bill of lading or material-handling form), make sure that you've educated your I&D supervisor or person in charge of your exhibit properties about the importance of the bill of lading and how it must be handled.

Product Launch Scrubbed

Picture a 5,000-square-foot, half-million-dollar exhibit constructed of meeting rooms, demo stations, and huge ceiling-hung banners touting the new technology my client planned to roll out at a show. Three days before the show opened, the company supplying the technology component of my client's new product decided to pull the plug on that technology.

Between products being pulled, mergers and acquisitions, and other last-minute changes from the powers that be in any company, it's not that uncommon to have to change the whole focus of a booth weeks or even days before a show. In this case, we ended up creating graphics of existing products to fill the void. If you encounter your own scrubbed product launch, consider the following tips.

If the product is completely unavailable, circle the wagons. Call a quick meeting of product managers, graphic designers, exhibit-house reps, graphics producers, and reps from your I&D labor provider and get them to agree to new timelines and budgets to mitigate damage.

Add a segment to your exhibit staff meeting advising staffers of what the company's official statement is on this no-go product that was originally intended to be the buzz of the show.

Make sure to pull both your online and hard-copy press kits and replace with other materials, if possible.

Structurally Sound

Never underestimate the power of a structural engineer. When one of my clients decided to exhibit using a double-deck property, the result was a second-story snafu. The exhibit house submitted the drawings to the convention center's structural engineer. But when we got on site, we discovered that a) the exhibit house didn't pay the required fee for a review, and b) it left a few details off the drawing that resulted in the structural engineer barring us from using the upper level of the exhibit.

Double-deck exhibits are typically the main concern of structural engineers. I've seen a double-deck exhibit condemned at a show because it was deemed unstable. I've also had structural engineers question the width of stairways, handrails on the stairways, ADA issues of width and grade of ramps, and the number of stairways available in multi-story exhibits. You can also get in trouble with the fire marshal on site if your exhibit doesn't meet all of the fire safety standards. So heed the following advice, and you're far more likely to avert a potentially disastrous situation.

Make sure you've reviewed and understand the show's rules on exhibits that require structural-engineer and fire-marshal approval. This responsibility is too critical to abdicate to your exhibit house.

When in doubt, talk with the event venue's structural engineer to make sure your exhibit property meets all the facility's specifications.

If you don't discover the problems until you're constructing the exhibit on site, keep your cool and work with the site's structural engineer to make any necessary changes to be able to use your exhibit.

Holy Graphics, Batman

It was the day before a show, and my exhibit was ready for the final touch - the graphic panels. I found the large cardboard box that the new graphics were shipped in, pulled out the graphics, and discovered there were two holes the size of my fist through every panel. Turns out some gentle, caring forklift driver had skewered our graphics panels - and patched the cardboard box so well I hadn't noticed the irreversible damage until it was almost too late.

Skewered, chipped, bent, or even lost graphics have been the source of numerous panic attacks on the show floor. Luckily, technological advances are making it easier to reproduce ruined graphics (or at least create passable replacements) on the fly. But you still need to plan ahead if you hope to survive unscathed, so here are some tips to help you prepare for the worst.

Always have your graphics designer put all show graphics on a CD that you have in your possession at the show in case you need to reproduce or change them on site.

Know who in a show city can produce last-minute graphics, such as the show's general services contractor or a 24-hour printer such as Kinko's. Consider making a list of such places for each city you regularly exhibit in - or ask your graphics supplier to compile a list for you.

Spend the extra money on sturdy shipping cases made of durable plastic or wood, and use lots of bubble wrap or packing peanuts to protect your booth graphics and signage.

Vendor Bender

Not all businesses you'll deal with in the trade show industry have your exhibit program's best interests at heart. I've had an exhibit house whose finances were so precarious that it couldn't pay the rent, and the sheriff locked down its warehouse for non-payment just before my client's exhibit needed to be shipped.

I also had a client who wanted to save money on shipping and hired a bargain trucking company that was behind on paying its road taxes. The truckload of exhibit materials was impounded at a roadside scale. Since the shipping company couldn't afford to pay the penalties and taxes, the exhibiting company paid the fees to get the truck released. Avert a similar snafu by learning from my mistakes.

Use vendors that are well established in the business. Before you sign on with a new vendor, check its references with other exhibitors who have used its products or services.

Have your accounting department check your vendors' credit rating. Flag any concerns and ask your vendor for explanations.

Build an extra day into all of your vendor deadlines to allow for unforeseen problems.

We can't look into our convention-center crystal balls and predict the kinds of peril we will encounter at each show. But we can learn from each other's mistakes in hopes of avoiding, preventing, or, at the very least, surviving the most common ones. Here's hoping my many disasters will bring you countless crisis-free shows for years to come.e

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