WHEN EXHIBITORS COMPLAIN that tradeshows cost too much and the customer service is lousy, what's a show manager to do? The cost of exhibitor services and how they're delivered are in the hands of general contractors, beyond the association's control, aren't they? Not so. Several associations are becoming their own general contractors, with the help of Atlanta-based TradeshowLogistics.

Run by the mother-daughter team of Bonnie Aaron, CEO, and B.J. Enright, president, TradeshowLogistics has gotten at least two associations to leave their general contractors and produce their own shows. One of the groups is the American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, Ill., which used TradeshowLogistics for its annual meeting in November at the New Orleans Convention Center, with about 300 exhibiting companies.

Customer satisfaction was one factor that led AAP to leave GES Exposition Services for TradeshowLogistics. “On all of our post-meeting evaluations, no matter what we did, we still couldn't bring customer satisfaction up from a ‘fair’ to a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ level,” says Marisa Goldberg, CEM, CMP, manager, exhibits and meeting services. “It was no fault of GES. There were just too many players involved.”

Consultant, Not Contractor

As consultant, Enright managed exhibitor services on AAP's behalf. In addition to improving customer service, her goals included decreasing new exhibitor turnover. She assigned three customer-care representatives to handle pre-show orders, on-site troubleshooting, and post-show billing inquiries.

Although final figures were not yet in when we talked to Donna Karl, CMP, director, meetings and convention services, AAP, she estimated that they reduced costs by $400,000 for just this one show. Exhibitors also benefited from big savings. “Ninety-six percent of our exhibitors pre-ordered equipment, which entitled them to a 30 percent savings,” Karl says. In addition, exhibitors saved money by using the preferred shipper, TradeshowLogistics Transport.

“We picked shipping and handling as a major service to cut costs,” Enright explains. “We offer discounted materials-handling services and competitively priced shipping, so exhibitors [have an incentive] to use TradeshowLogistics Transport.”

Karl says one third of the exhibitors shipped out using the preferred shipper, which gave them a 30 percent savings. If they pre-ordered equipment and used the preferred shipper, they cut their costs by 60 percent. While exhibitor surveys were not yet tabulated at press time, Karl expects high marks in customer satisfaction. “The show moved in and out on time. It went beautifully — it couldn't have been better.”

TradeshowLogistics also cuts costs by getting competitive prices on service contracts. If savings are higher than estimated, TradeshowLogistics shares in the profit. “We can create savings through the system, and the [show managers] can decide whether they want to pass those on to the exhibitor, or fund activities within their own organization,” says Enright. “The smartest thing for a show to do may be to pour profits into activities that generate attendance. That ultimately benefits the exhibitor.”

Healthy Skepticism

One might argue that what the AAP is doing is not being its own general contractor so much as contracting with a general contractor, TradeshowLogistics, in a different way. Call it management consulting, if you will, but Aaron and Enright, both formerly employed by GES, come from long careers in service contracting. They procure services on behalf of the association and get paid a fee for doing it.

“Most general service contractors have been aggregating vendor services either in-house or in partnership with other vendors already,” says Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management in Dallas. “This direct, vendor-to-vendor model ought to result in lower costs than if a third, independent party became involved in brokering these arrangements.”

Other kinks in the cost-reduction scheme include negotiating for facility-exclusive services to be included in the online service kit, convincing exhibitors not to use their own exhibitor-appointed contractors, and convincing them to order online.

Finally, quality service comes, in part, by building relationships with reputable vendors. Sometimes it may be worth the added cost to hire a team that's worked together on hundreds of shows and know that the contractor is ultimately responsible for timely delivery and quality service. Two major general contractors, The Freeman Cos. and GES, both offer robust online systems and customer-service organizations.

“General service contractors are very willing to say, ‘This is how our system works. Tell us how you want it to work, and let's see if we can work together,’” says Susan Schwartz, executive director, Exposition Service Contractors Association. “We're all looking for better ways to serve exhibitors.”

Cathy Chatfield-Taylor is a freelance writer and editor based in Lenexa, Kan. She's a former editor of Expo.