The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation May 7 that will reduce labor costs for exhibitors at McCormick Place in an effort to make the city more competitive as a convention destination.

Once Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill into law, exhibitors will be able to set up their own booths—no matter what size booth they have—with power hand tools and ladders, pay only straight time for labor performed weekdays in the first eight-hour shift that occurs between 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., eliminate non-working stewards, and set the size of the work crew based on safety needs and the scope of work at hand.

The bill also eliminates the requirement that conventions use the center’s in-house electricity provider and allows exhibitors to bring in their own food and beverage for booth staff. Jim Reilly, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority and former chief executive of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which up until now has run McCormick Place, was appointed trustee to oversee the implementation of the changes—including finding a private management firm to handle the center’s daily operations.

“To paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, this is a really big deal,” said David Causton, McCormick Place’s general manager, in a video on the chicagomeetingmatters Web site. That the city needed a deal big enough to stem the loss of shows to competing destinations became increasingly obvious last year as two high-profile events decamped to other locales. The Healthcare Information Management Systems Society moved its convention to Las Vegas due to Chicago’s high labor costs, and SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association pulled its triennial NPE show out of Chicago in favor of Orlando for its 2012 and 2015 events to save on labor and services.

“Our convention industry was at a breaking point, and the jobs and tax revenue it brings to our city and state were in jeopardy,” Causton said. “This process has been a collaborative effort. Many people, including our customers, rallied together to make this sweeping legislation possible. Now, after months of hard work, all we need is for Governor Quinn to sign this bill into law.” Among the trade show organizers that testified before the Joint Committee in favor of the bill were the National Restaurant Association, the American College of Surgeons, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and the International Housewares Association.

In his testimony before the Illinois legislature’s Joint Committee on the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority in April, Tim Roby, CCTB president and CEO, said that, if the bill didn’t pass, as many as 20 more shows might have crossed Chicago off their lists. While he admits that there is still much work to be done, Roby said in a statement announcing the changes, “Our customers asked for more flexibility and lower costs, and Springfield delivered. It is exactly the reform we need to keep our state vibrant and the trade shows coming back.” The legislation also calls for a yearly audit to ensure that savings are in fact being passed along to customers, and raises the cap on a fund that would be used to attract shows to Chicago from $10 million to $20 million.

The legislation was the brainchild of a task force that formed in 2009 to make Chicago more competitive with cities that enjoy lower labor costs, such as Orlando and Las Vegas. Among the task force members were representatives from the MPEA and the Chicago CVB, labor leaders, show contractors, and the restaurant and hospitality industry.

While local convention and hospitality industry leaders are heralding the bill’s passage, some unions whose members depend on McCormick Place work fear it will cause them some financial pain. Frank Libby, president of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, recently told the Chicago Tribune, “This will have a drastic effect on us.”

The Chicago CVB is launching an awareness campaign to spread news of the changes to potential meetings customers. More information is available on ChicagoMeetingMatters.com.