General service contractors, for the most part, have never been eager innovators. The business of renting furniture, fixtures, and human beings has been, until recently, a relatively uncomplicated business. Lately, however, customer demand has forced an industry of snail-mailers to innovate or risk losing their competitiveness. Event planners and exhibition managers are demanding more — more speed, more capabilities, and more information from their vendors.

Mike McCool, director of technology services for The Freeman Cos., has noted the impact of show organizers on the push for new technology efficiencies.

“Our customers have higher and higher expectations,” McCool says. “They face increasing competition in their marketplaces, both from other shows and other forms of B2B. Consequently, they have upgraded their use of more sophisticated technologies, particularly software.”

McCool believes it is the job of general contractors to develop applications that keep up with this sophistication and help clients to keep their competitive position.

McCool notes one example in the area of marketing. “Show organizers are focusing more of their resources on developing sophisticated marketing campaigns so they can better differentiate their brands at events,” he explains. “They develop campaigns that have a very specific color scheme, ‘look and feel,’ and execution.” Freeman, in an effort to help customers extend their marketing campaigns to the show site, has made substantial investments in software and output devices to reproduce graphics in a variety of sizes, formats, and methods.

Automating Core Competencies

The must-innovate sentiment is echoed by Merl Lawless, manager of corporate business development for Excel On-Line, a division of Springfield, Ill. — based Excel Decorators, where commitment to technology is at the top of the list.

“Contractors should demonstrate an attitude about incorporating technology into their business,” Lawless says. At the most basic level, companies must have e-mail capabilities, not only for communication but also for transferring large files, such as graphics. This involves platform compatibility and high-speed Internet access. Lawless says that online exhibitor manuals are also becoming essential. These can reduce printing and mailing costs and improve the overall efficiency of the operation.

Besides basic communication, file transfer, and online exhibitor manuals, the Internet is making upgrades to other fundamental GSC services. One of the biggest headaches for exhibitors is also the nemesis of exhibition managers: locating the wayward shipment of exhibit materials.

Before Hoffend Xposition Services, Rochester, N.Y., launched its real-time online freight-tracking system, exhibitors were forced to hang around the exhibition hall for hours or days waiting for their freight. Now, exhibitors can log in from the airport or their hotel room to check on deliveries. This online capability is also important for show management. Hoffend's clients can log in to check on the arrival of critical shipments, such as the 50-foot by 50-foot booth that will mark the entrance to the show. The Expo Group and Freeman have also recently deployed online freight tracking for their customers.

Taking the Cue from Customers

Some companies, such as Irving, Texas — based The Expo Group, have taken the concept of meeting customer demand to the next level. The Expo Group has emulated its client's technology. As the general contractor of VPNCon, a conference and trade show dedicated to Virtual Private Networks (private, encrypted connections over the public Internet), The Expo Group has deployed VPN technology for its own use. Since 1997, it has equipped its on-site service centers with e-mail and faxing capabilities as part of a wide area network that uses a VPN connection to its main office.

The Expo Group's VPN has opened up a range of service opportunities for show organizers. Key clients receive log-in identifications and passwords to order show services. They can also access vital information, such as the volume of services provided to exhibitors and the identity of exhibitors who haven't ordered services. Knowing which exhibitors haven't placed orders helps show managers to anticipate problems, such as an exhibitor dropping out at the last minute or being unhappy about a surcharge for ordering on site.

Several months ago, The Expo Group rolled out a new customer-service capability that uses Voice Over Internet Protocol technology. When a client calls The Expo Group's 800 number, the call is routed to The Expo Group employee, regardless of his or her location, via the Internet. Since The Expo Group advocates a single-point-of-contact service philosophy, this protocol enables clients to reach their Expo Group representative, whether they are in the office or at a show site, with one phone call.

The Expo Group has given some of its largest clients a special telephone that features an embedded Internet connection. The device, affectionately referred to as the “bat phone,” allows customers to bypass long-distance telephone carriers and dial direct to The Expo Group via the Internet. While a request for this technology may not appear on a standard general contractor RFP any time soon, according to Randy Pekowski, director of information services for The Expo Group, client response has been very positive.

Greater Expectations

Technology in other market sectors may be moving beyond infancy, but relatively speaking, general contractors are still learning to crawl. But Excel's Lawless maintains that being a general contractor helped tremendously in the development of the virtual trade show concept and later opened doors to potential clients because of Excel's ability to understand show management and speak the language of the industry.

While Excel On-Line has a lot of competition today from third-party vendors of virtual trade show products, it remains committed to the needs of its customers (mostly associations) by offering features including user-friendly data transfer capabilities (such as uploading database information to the Web), permission e-mail marketing, distance learning, and e-commerce.

Much of the future focus is on wireless solutions and the integration of handheld devices and other personal digital assistants, according to Denise Avellanosa, director of exhibitor services for Hoffend Xposition Services. That idea is echoed by The Expo Group's Randy Pekowski, who predicts attendees and exhibitors with Internet-enabled cellphones will be able to access show information from the event Web site and retrieve e-mail from show managers.

Hoffend is exploring having handheld computer “pages” that correspond with Web site content, such as calendars (deadlines for ordering show services or program schedules). Hoffend may even rent Palm-type devices at shows or use them in emissary programs (at which customer service representatives patrol the show floor).

Remember, the impetus for general service contractors to deploy technological solutions has come mostly from planner demand — so keep asking and demanding.

Negotiating with Your GSC

  • General service contractors earn their revenues from renting products (furniture, pipe and drape, etc.) or providing services (drayage, rigging labor, etc.) to show management and exhibitors. Steve Schuldenfrei, president of Framingham, Mass. — based Exposition Operations Society, and other industry experts offer the following negotiating tips.

  • If your show is reasonably large (300 booths or more), you are in a good position to negotiate. To gain more leverage, consider multiple-year contracts or, if the show moves from city to city, national contracts with the same GSC.

  • Show producers with smaller events in second-tier cities may benefit from using regional general contractors able to operate on a smaller overhead and lower profit margins.

  • The deeper the discount offered, the higher the price paid by exhibitors, and vice versa. Know what products and services you need and which ones you are willing to give up. Make sure that the prices exhibitors will pay are part of the contract.

  • To reduce the cost of services to show management, increase the opportunity for the contractor to sell elective services. This can be done by promoting these services in the exhibitor kit or by designating the contractor as the “official” service provider.

  • Come to the negotiating table with statistics from previous shows (number of exhibitors, square footage, growth projections, the amount spent on various services by show management and exhibitors). According to year 2000 statistics cited by The Freeman Cos., GSCs earn the largest piece of their revenues from drayage (44 percent), followed by property rentals (35 percent), and show management services (21 percent).

  • Obtain at least three proposals from prospective vendors. Knowing what the competition offers can help you negotiate better terms. All contractors should be evaluated regularly.

  • Be fair. Schuldenfrei says, “Never cut such a good deal that the contractor is left reeling. This will only prompt them to cut back on quality or service.”

    Not every contract term is negotiable. In states in which union contracts prevail, non-negotiable terms may include union laborers' pay rate, the minimum number of people on rigging crews, and tasks that exhibitors can and cannot perform.

Collaboration, Freeman-Style

The process of developing an event with a general services contractor, from contract negotiation to design of the show's image, can be a time-consuming, paper-intensive process. However, a new service called iPlanner, scheduled for launch in the fourth quarter of 2001, will automate the collaborative process between The Freeman Cos. and event planners.

Freeman's iPlanner will be a Web-based application that allows event planners to access such information as show graphics, floor plans, and prospective exhibitor manuals; and to annotate the files and view corrections online. Mike McCool, 10-year show management veteran and director of technology services for Freeman, believes iPlanner will revolutionize the way event managers and general service contractors collaborate.