THE NEW LABOR RULES at Chicago's McCormick Place are getting mostly positive feedback from event planners. “It's definitely a step in the right direction,” says Pam Magnani, vice president of meetings and education, the American Gastroentero-logical Association, Bethesda, Md. The AGA was participating in the Digestive Disease Week convention at McCormick in early May when the new regulations were announced.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority now has “the tools in place to be able to make the changes that are going to allow everyone to walk away a winner,” Magnani says.

The new rules allow exhibitors to do more booth work on their own, including hanging signs, blowing up balloons, handing out fliers, and hooking up electrical connections, without the assistance of unions. Other changes include reviewing crew sizes on a case-by-case basis, and an expansion in the number of hours customers pay straight-time wages.

Changes in the economy and in the convention and meeting industry prompted the first labor changes at the facility since 1998, says Billy Weinberg, director of communications at MPEA, which owns and operates McCormick Place and Navy Pier. “Does the more competitive business environment that we find ourselves in influence our need to make changes in our labor situation and, more importantly, in our effectiveness and efficiency in the overall show experience? There's no question about that.”

The changes are the result of 11 months of meetings between the MPEA, labor unions, and service contractors, Weinberg adds.

There is no doubt that Chicago is facing tough competition — particularly from Las Vegas and Orlando. While the Digestive Disease Week show drew record attendance in its first visit to Chicago, some “old-time” Chicago shows are rethinking their commitment to the city.

AGA's Magnani says that holding meetings in Chicago is not as easy as it is in some other cities. “It costs more and it takes longer for things to get done, but [Chicago's union workers] are among the most qualified laborers in the country, so it's a double-edged sword,” Magnani says.