UNION LESSON ONE: It's not the rates; it's the rules. When meeting organizers bring their events to cities with unionized convention labor, their biggest challenge to keeping exhibitors' costs down and satisfaction high isn't usually the labor rates. Rather, it's the complex work rules and jurisdictions and the number of unions that affect costs.

UNION LESSON TWO: When it comes to eliminating conflicts, there's no substitute for advance planning and frequent communication. Savvy planners ask early about how facilities differ from convention centers in which they've previously met. Union jurisdictions and work rules vary from city to city, and slight differences can affect costs for both organizers and exhibitors.

These are among the lessons that Ron Gregg has learned along the way. He is the national conventions, meetings, and travel manager for Oak Brook, Ill.-based Ace Hardware, which holds a 500,000-square-foot show for retailers twice a year. Gregg takes labor communications seriously, gleaning pre-show intelligence from multiple sources. “Typically we work with a general contractor — The Expo Group — which has relationships with the unions across the country,” says Gregg. “We talk to the cities about the hot topics for the unions and the laborers who will be working our shows. Also we have business relationships with other show managers to get their thoughts and experiences on the city. The city will only tell you so much. A show manager who has just recently visited will have the best info for you.”

Only with ongoing communications about a facility's specific labor rules and how those rules are enforced can organizers manage exhibitor expectations, alleviate tension, and ultimately control labor costs and help to motivate a skilled work force to deliver superior customer service.

Learn the Rules

It's not unusual for planners to book convention center space, hire a contractor, and trust that all matters related to move-in and move-out will be taken care of capably and efficiently. But understanding the nature of the work, and who does that work, can enable you to budget more accurately.

“You need to understand what each union can and can't do,” says Donna Karl, CMP, vice president of client relations for the New Orleans Convention Bureau. “If it costs more for your contractor to process a meeting in City A than City B, those costs are passed along to you … or to your exhibitors.”

During site selection, call show managers who have been in the city and ask about the labor situation. Then discuss your needs with the convention sales representatives. Get a copy of the union work rules and jurisdictions, and review how they could affect your event.

At the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, for example, six unions service meetings. The “Customer Satisfaction Agreement” signed by unions in 2003 created a unified work force to allow laborers to work outside their jurisdictions to get a job done. Now one labor supplier, Elliot-Lewis Corp., can fill labor back orders with members of any union.

The Philadelphia CVB can explain how the new agreement and its expanded exhibitor rights could save money on labor — from 10 percent to 30 percent at complex events, they say.

“If you come to Philly with a pre-planned program for when freight arrives at the dock, to when it moves in, to how long it takes to set up and break down, you become much more cost-effective,” says Jack Ferguson, vice president of the CVB's convention division. “If you don't go off your plan, you should experience cost savings.”

Other factors that can affect the quality, quantity, and cost of labor include how labor is called — by name or seniority — and the number of simultaneous events. Too many events scheduled at the same time could drain the labor pool, leaving less-than-top-notch workers who take more time.

Finally, ask if union contracts are due to expire the year that you're in town. Labor disputes such as this year's Teamsters strike in Las Vegas and the hotel labor strike and lockout in San Francisco could disrupt your meeting and reduce the labor pool to unskilled workers. Weigh the risks before selecting a site.

Once you choose a venue, ensure the staff understands your labor needs by inviting a representative to attend your meeting the prior year. The rep can see firsthand how you run your event and suggest changes that could make the best use of their facility and its work force.

Your Point Person

While convention centers have agreements with unions in their buildings — such as electricians and plumbers — the major contractors negotiate agreements with trades from city to city. GES Exposition Services, for example, has 120 collective bargaining agreements in the United States and Canada, and Freeman and AVW Audio Visual together have 124 contracts.

Your contractor knows how work rules and jurisdictions vary from city to city and can tell you what to expect in a new venue. He can also eliminate confusion about who does what.

“You need to focus on the work to be done, not the name of the union or trade,” says John Patronski, Chicago-based GES executive vice president, industry development. “You might associate a Teamster with moving freight, but in Las Vegas they also install and dismantle exhibits and carpeting. The name may be misleading.”

The unit cost for labor can vary significantly, depending on which union has jurisdiction. Work rules that affect how many workers are called, and how long they work before overtime applies, can also inflate costs. The contractor can help you to prepare a budget that reflects the specific labor situation.

As your point person with the unions, the contractor also lays the groundwork for collegial relations.

“We make it a point that they meet with the unions, educate them about how we operate, and convey our expectations,” says Ace Hardware's Gregg. “They are key decision-makers, so not a lot of things can bottleneck the show during setup.”

If you have a complex event or unique displays that exhibitors prefer to handle themselves — such as scientific instrumentation or computers and peripherals — ask your contractor to arrange for you to meet directly with the unions. Face-to-face meetings can help work through the details and even gain special concessions, but they can be contentious if they are handled poorly.

“Everyone has to understand what the agreement was, what exceptions may be made, and what the justification was,” Patronski says.

Exhibitor Training

Communicating city-specific work rules to exhibitors is key to reducing frustration and avoiding conflicts. This information is standard in exhibitor kits, but exhibitors are notorious for not reading them. The problem is compounded in a new city, where they're unaware of changes.

To help, Freeman publishes a summary of city-to-city changes in a one-page handout. Frequent e-mail blasts and newsletters drive home the differences.

Pre-show workshops provide another opportunity to explain the ins and outs of exhibiting in a new location. Exhibitor training should cover not only the role of the service contractor, union work rules and jurisdictions, and exhibitor rights, but also provide tips on reducing costs.

If you're rotating your event out of a right-to-work state and into a strong union town, expect costs to be higher and rules to be more strict. Prepare exhibitors by explaining ways that they will benefit from the new location, such as more attendees and sales.

Despite your best efforts, there may be conflict between exhibitors and laborers during move-in. If the exhibitor is in the right, then advocate for your exhibitor without question. If not, support the union by respecting its rules.

“There is always contention from a minority of exhibitors about a specific rule, like hand carrying freight or booth setup,” says John O'Connell Jr., executive vice president and COO of Freeman's Eastern Division in Boston. “If the show manager supports the contractor and the union when it's appropriate, a little goes a long way.”

Union Initiatives

Recognizing the negative effect a bad reputation can have on a city's ability to attract meetings, unions are taking steps to adjust their attitude. Training programs in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities are giving laborers basic instruction in trade show etiquette.

At McCormick Place, customer service training modules introduced in November are sponsored jointly by GES, Freeman, and the facility. “It's important for labor to understand what the industry is about, and how competitive the environment is,” says General Manager David Causton. “I'm hoping that it will go a long way toward improving the service on the show floor.”

In Southern California, the trade show installers union offers more than 20 classes for workers to get certified in everything from customer service to rigging. Color-coded badges indicate each worker's skill set, so contractors can call certified workers. The program has been so successful that it's being cloned in Northern California, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis, with projects pending in Miami and Texas.

Planners can benefit from the customer-friendly attitude by choosing cities with proactive unions and taking their unique needs directly to the union business manager at least two to three months before their show.

When it's all over, saying a simple “thank you” goes a long way toward building productive future relationships. If workers perform well, seek out the steward and shake his hand, write a letter, call a meeting, or schedule a dinner where you can sing their praises in front of the convention center and CVB staff.

Without trade unions working 24/7, 365 days a year, most meetings wouldn't happen. “Acknowledging the role of labor in producing exhibitions, respecting labor, and involving them in the planning has a bigger impact than anything you can do,” says Thomas Mobley, CEO and general manager of the Washington, D.C., Convention Center Authority. “Early, often, and open communication is the way to make sure we have all the information we need. Our goal is not to have any surprises.”

Comparing Labor Costs

Planners who move their meetings from city to city should compare labor rates so they can estimate costs and manage exhibitor expectation. One tried-and-true resource is Tradeshow Week's annual survey of U.S. and Canadian labor rates.

After spiking as much as 5 percent to 10 percent in years past, the average cost of labor at convention centers has plateaued, according to the 2004 survey. “Most top-tier cities are comparable in price,” says Michael Hughes, associate publisher and director of research services for the Los Angeles-based publication. “It's the work rules that impact price, and they vary.”

When comparing, be sure to ask which unions perform what services, and when overtime charges apply.

U.S. Convention Center Labor Rates

(regular time/hour) Average High Low
CARPENTER $66.29 $115.55 (New York) $47.67 (Columbus)
DECORATOR (general labor) $64.83 $105.00 (San Jose) $49.00 (San Antonio)
DRAYAGE (general labor) $65.24 $107.50 (New York) $45.00 (Rosemont, IL)
FORKLIFT W/OPERATOR (highest weight) $155.26 $325.25 (Seattle) $85.00 (Honolulu)
PLUMBER $65.18 $111.50 (San Jose) $35.00 (Cincinnati)
Source: Tradeshow Week 2004 Survey of U.S. and Canadian Labor Rates

7 steps to resolve labor conflicts

When tempers flare, having a process in place for conflict resolution can ease tensions on all sides.

  1. Assign a point person to handle problems in designated areas.
  2. Notify the contractor to intercede.
  3. Remove the conflict from the show floor to a private space.
  4. Ensure work continues while the parties confer.
  5. Consult the exhibit contract and/or work rules for an interpretation.
  6. Get confirmation from the facility's labor liaison or union steward.
  7. Enforce the rule or negotiate a work-around with the union.