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exhibiting 101

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

enting an exhibit can be a smart choice, both financially and logistically. The industry rule of thumb is that renting an exhibit makes 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.

However, renting can also be a big hassle, with unexpected costs and last-minute problems. The following eight tips can help you avoid common rental potholes and stay within your budget.

1. Start with a rock-solid RFP.
The more information you can include in your Request For Proposal (RFP) about your strategic, tactical, and
logistical expectations, the better. For example, a recent rental RFP I distributed included photos of the interactive equipment we needed to showcase, the footprints of the equipment and areas for the traffic around them, and a link to the exhibitor's online style book with everything from fonts to logos and colors.

I also explained what graphics were required near the equipment, and the wiring requirements between the various pieces. 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."

2. Request line-item costs. You should expect the exhibit house's proposal to be just as detailed as your RFP. Ask for all-inclusive, detailed, line-item descriptions and costs to be included in the proposal.

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. In some states, rental properties that are only used out of state or out of the country are not taxed.

Also inquire about additional fees if you use a credit card to pay your rental bill; some vendors pass on credit-card costs of up to 4 percent to the renter. I've also been hit with bank fees and currency-exchange fees when a client wants to pay via wire transfer.

Finally, ask for estimates of the ancillary services you'll need to support the rental. For example, find out 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 required to support the exhibit's structural lighting and whether you need to pay for forklifts or rigging to set up and dismantle the exhibit.

3. Get a good labor estimate. A few years ago, a client of mine disclosed his total show budget to his exhibit house when he was negotiating prices for the exhibit rental and graphics, versus the other nonexhibit expenses, such as booth space, show services, shipping, promotion, and personnel expenses.

To maximize the amount of money allocated for the rental (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 prior to my taking over the project, he was stuck with the bill for the difference between 125 hours and 400 hours - which meant he went way over his budget.

Ask your exhibit house for an estimate of the number of man hours required for I&D, and then add 20 to 25 percent to that estimate. 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 fixed, flat fee based on their estimated number of labor hours, rather than paying your own I&D bill, which can fluctuate from show to show and burst your budget.

4. Don't forget to compare your proposal and rental agreement. I recently received a rental agreement from an exhibit house that did not match the proposal it 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 the size. I didn't sign this rental agreement without getting this graphic back to its original size, and I learned to always reference both the proposal and the visuals that back it up before signing an agreement. 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. I've learned to put a line in the agreement specifying "no substitution of 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's setup instructions. One vendor believed it was acceptable to just put big red Xs on the items not being used for our setup on an old set of drawings and denoting 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 to order my electrical drops because it wasn't ordering the electrical power for me and making the profit from the turnkey fee. I now routinely list this requirement in my initial RFP, along with a specific request for setup drawings and detailed setup instructions.

I have also recently found it necessary to stipulate in an exhibit-rental agreement that all documentation that needs to be submitted for approval to the show manager, convention-facility structural engineers, and fire marshals - as well as the associated fees - also be included in the cost of the rental exhibit.

6. Bring 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 who is familiar with the exhibit on site during setup.

If you're sharing this supervisor with another exhibitor at the show, make sure that your rental agreement states that you will only pay a fairly prorated portion of the labor supervisor's wages, travel, and on-site expenses. You should only pay for services you receive. When I was an industry rookie many years ago, an exhibitor-appointed contractor told me that billing multiple clients for the full amount of a labor supervisor's time was normal, regardless of the fact that he or she split that time among several exhibitors. In fact, this particular contractor told me to "Get over it." I never did.

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 property that your dedicated labor supervisor may not.

7. Get a sneak peek. Set specific dates for progress milestones that need to be met, leading up to a date for a trial exhibit setup. Always stipulate in your rental agreement that you want to see the exhibit at least one week before it ships to make sure it meets your requirements and that there's time to fix anything that doesn't meet your expectations.

Also remember that any rental-exhibit properties that need to be sent to the advance warehouse, such as a hanging sign or banner, probably won't be available at your exhibit preview.

Just a couple of days before my most recent rental preview, I found out that, to save itself shipping fees, my exhibit house had decided to have my new carpet shipped direct to the advance warehouse rather than to the exhibit house. Its savings increased my cost of material handling and resulted in damage to the booth carpet. I wasn't aware of that damage - and therefore couldn't try to fix it - until I was at the exhibit hall setting up the booth. So make sure your rental agreement clearly states who is managing the shipping logistics (and bearing any unforeseen cost) for all of your rental exhibit properties.

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

Renting an exhibit isn't for everyone or every program, but it is an option that has definite benefits and minimal drawbacks. Just follow the aforementioned tips, get everything in writing, and schedule a preview with sufficient time to correct any errors, and you will be well on your way to a successful rental experience.e

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