At the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting in Chicago's McCormick Place this year, exhibitors could plug in their own devices, as long as they weren't high voltage, thanks to union concessions. Since RSNA is one of the largest medical trade shows in the country, imagine the cost if it had been otherwise.

“We're in a situation where exhibitors are saying to us, ‘It's so expensive in Chicago. What are you going to do for us?’” says Steve Drew, assistant executive director of the Oak Brook, Ill.-based association. “They're looking at Las Vegas, Orlando, and other cities and seeing that it's not really the labor rates, it's the work rules, jurisdictions, and number of unions that affect costs.”

Despite Chicago's 1999 labor agreement, there are still many issues to be resolved. RSNA has worked behind the scenes with McCormick Place, Chicago CTB, the general service contractor, and even Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, to gain labor union concessions that would relax the rules about what exhibitors can do themselves.

It's just one example of how planners can advocate to control labor costs and avoid hassles for their exhibitors. But you don't need the clout of a 1.5 million-square-foot trade show to build productive relationships with unions. When it comes to eliminating conflicts, there's no substitute for advance planning.

Savvy planners ask early about how facilities differ from convention centers where they've met before. Union jurisdictions and work rules vary from city to city, and slight differences can affect costs for both organizers and exhibitors.

Working with your allies, you can control labor costs, manage exhibitor expectations, and alleviate tension, as well as help motivate a skilled workforce to deliver superior customer service.

Early Warning

Understanding the nature of the work — and who does that work in the building — can enable you to budget more accurately. “You need to understand what each union can and can't do,” says Donna Karl, CMP, former director of convention and meeting services for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Chicago, and now vice president of client relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors 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, the association, or to your exhibitors.”

During site selection, call other show managers who have been in the city and ask about the labor situation. Then discuss your needs with the convention sales representatives. Ask for a copy of the union work rules and jurisdictions, and review how they could impact 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 workforce to allow laborers to work outside their jurisdictions to get a job done. Now one labor supplier, Elliot-Lewis Corp., can fill labor backorders with members of any union. The Customer Satisfaction Agreement and its expanded exhibitor rights could save money on labor — from 10 percent to 30 percent at complex healthcare events, according to the CVB.

“If you come to Philly with a pre-planned program for when freight arrives at the dock, when it moves in, and 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.

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. If too many events are scheduled at once, that could drain the labor pool, leaving less-than-top-notch workers who take more time.

Finally, be sure to ask if union contracts are due to expire the year 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 and measure the risks before selecting that site.

Once you choose a venue, ensure that the staff understands your labor needs by inviting a representative to attend your meeting the prior year. They can see how you run your event and suggest changes that could better utilize their facility and its workforce.

Point Person

While convention centers have agreements with unions in their buildings, such as electricians and plumbers, the major contractors negotiate agreements with multiple trades from city to city. GES Exposition Services 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 might associate a teamster with moving freight, but in Las Vegas they also install and dismantle exhibits and carpeting,” says John Patronski, Chicago-based GES executive vice president, industry development.

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 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.

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

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. To help, Freeman publishes a simple summary of city-to-city changes in a one-page handout that's quick and easy to read. Frequent e-mail blasts and newsletters drive home the differences.

Pre-show workshops provide another opportunity to explain exhibiting in a new location. When one show prepared to move from New York's Javits Convention Center to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, show managers invited 40 of their largest exhibitors to Philadelphia a year in advance for a day-long planning session with the labor supplier and events manager.

Exhibitor training not only covers the role of the service contractor, union work rules and jurisdictions, and exhibitor rights, it also provides tips on how to reduce costs. In Chicago, for example, the FOCUS One online ordering system offers exhibitors one-stop shopping for services. They can take advantage of “Smart Value Pricing,” which quotes a lump-sum cost for utilities and services. Exhibitors can order ‘a la carte, but if they accept the quote, they know exactly how much to budget.

If you're rotating your event out of a right-to-work state and into a union town, expect higher costs and stricter rules. Prepare exhibitors by explaining how they'll benefit; for example, the venue may pull more attendees and generate more sales.

Despite your best efforts, there may be conflict between exhibitors and laborers. If the exhibitor is in the right, then advocate for your exhibitor without question. But 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 impact 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. Training is mandatory for FOCUS One employees and voluntary for union members. “It's important for labor to understand the industry, and how competitive the environment is,” says General Manager David Causton. “I'm hoping that [the training] will improve service.”

In Southern California, the tradeshow 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, it's being cloned in Northern California, Milwaukee, Miami, and Minneapolis, with projects pending in Texas.

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

In Boston, the teamsters union services trade shows. Their seminars also educate members about how conventions select cities. “It's been an eye-opener,” says John Perry, director for trade shows and conventions for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Now they're getting a better education and, with that, you see a better attitude.”

Say “Thank You”

In the end, saying a simple thank-you goes a long way toward building productive relationships with unions. If workers perform well, then shake the steward's 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 unions working 24/7, 365 days a year, most meetings wouldn't happen. Says Thomas Mobley, CEO and general manager of the Washington, D.C., Convention Center Authority: “Acknowledging the value of labor in producing exhibitions, respecting labor and involving them in the planning process has a bigger impact than anything you can do.”

7 Steps to Resolve Labor Conflicts

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

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