There are no second chances when you ship materials to a meeting, convention, or trade show. If materials arrive late — or not at all — you've blown it. The window of opportunity is slammed shut, and your options are pretty limited.

How do you avoid such disasters? By using qualified, experienced suppliers, of course. But remember that the suppliers act as the agents of the person shipping the materials. You are ultimately the person responsible for complying with the regulations, and you will have to pay any penalties for noncompliance — whether those penalties come in the form of duties and taxes or as delayed materials. Therefore all shippers — meeting executives, trade show organizers, and exhibitors — need to be aware of the requirements.

It's important to discuss shipping procedures and schedules, packing requirements, and documentation with the freight forwarder early on, so that information on these details can be included in the exhibitor manual.

Customs Documents: A Primer

The ATA Carnet. This is a “merchandise passport” issued by the United States Council for International Business in New York City (212/354-4480; The ATA Carnet demonstrates to customs officials that you are bringing in the merchandise temporarily; if you do not re-export it, you will be subject to penalties. ATA Carnets may be used for most business-related items and professional equipment.

The ATA Carnet is accepted in more than 50 countries. The document is not required, but there are advantages to using one:

An ATA Carnet is valid for a year and can be used for unlimited entries and re-entries.

It eliminates temporary import duties and value-added taxes (VAT).

It is far less expensive than Temporary Importation Under Bond (see below), which can reach 150 percent of the value of the shipment.

It simplifies customs procedures and U.S. re-entry.

Carnet costs include a processing fee, which ranges from $120 to $250, depending on the value of the shipment; and a refundable security de- posit of at least 40 percent of the value of the shipment. The deposit can be paid by check or by surety bond. If the deposit is paid by surety bond, there is an additional nonrefundable charge of 1 percent of the deposit. That charge should be weighed against the interest lost if the deposit is paid by check. There is a $100 surcharge on carnets destined for the People's Republic of China.

Carnet application materials can be downloaded from the USCIB Web site or obtained from one of the service bureaus listed on the site. You can also use the Carnet Electronic Application, a Microsoft Windows-based program. For Carnet questions, call (212) 354-4480, or send an e-mail to

Temporary Importation Under Bond (TIB). If you do not use a carnet, you must post a bond to guarantee that the merchandise will be re-exported. A bond must be obtained for each foreign country upon arrival in that country. That is obviously far more complicated than using a single ATA Carnet, which is obtained before leaving the United States.

A Certificate of Origin. This document, required by some countries, states where the items in the shipment were manufactured. Be alert to the pitfalls here. (For example, a shipper who listed “U.S.” as the country of origin of machines that were purchased here but manufactured in Japan had the machines detained by customs officials for six months.) The freight forwarder completes the Certificate of Origin and should know which countries require it.

Temporary Export License. This is a specialized license required by the U.S. government for the export of products that could affect national security, including some computers. Licenses are issued by the Department of Commerce or the Department of State, depending on the commodity. For more information, contact the Department of Commerce, Office of Export Administration, at (202) 482-4811, or the Department of State, Office of Defense Trade Controls, at (703) 875-6644.

An experienced international freight forwarder can tell shippers which of these documents they will need. Some documents are always required; some vary by country or commodity; and some are at the discretion of the shipper. For specific customs information for your shipment, you can also contact the nearest U.S. Customs office. Check your phone book under “Treasury Department” in the U.S. Government listings.

Other Shipping Documents

The Commercial Invoice. This is a list of all items being shipped (including exhibit booths) with their dimensions, weight, and value. For items that will be displayed and then re-exported, not sold, list the cost of manufacture, not the selling price.

The Packing List. This list of items in each package must be accurate and specific. Simply listing “Office materials” won't do it. There is no official form for either the commercial invoice or the packing list. You may develop your own forms, and you may even combine the commercial invoice and packing list into a single form. It's advisable to prepare forms in both English and the language of the destination country. The commercial invoice/packing list is almost always required.

The Shipper's Export Declaration. This form is required by the Department of Commerce for some shipments valued over $2,500. It is completed by the freight forwarder. If you use an ATA Carnet, the U.S. Council for International Business (USCIB), which issues the Carnet, can provide the SED forms.

What Freight Forwarders Do

A freight forwarder will transport your shipment from one of its consolidation points in the United States to the airport or seaport (some forwarders also transfer shipments from your warehouse to the consolidation point), and will help with documentation.

But if you ship exhibit booths as well as materials, it's preferable to select an international exhibit freight forwarder. This specialized forwarder is more expensive, but provides additional services, including delivering the freight to the booth, unpacking, storing empty crates during the event — and reversing the procedure at the end of the event. In other words, the international exhibit freight forwarder usually handles drayage, which in the United States is the responsibility of a separate contractor. (Caution: It's usually done this way, but not always. Ask the freight forwarder if he or she handles drayage.)

Customs and Brokers

A customs broker receives goods at the destination, declares the value of the shipment, processes the paperwork, and handles the payment of any fees required to clear the goods. Although you can contract separately with a freight forwarder and a customs broker, it ultimately makes more sense to select a forwarder who is also a licensed customs broker. With one less supplier to deal with, you're more likely to receive seamless service.

Why not deal directly with the airline for all your shipping needs? Because an airline is strictly a carrier. Thus an airline typically would not be able to arrange to ship merchandise to the air terminal, for instance, or to prepare the documentation that would help your shipments to clear customs.

What about using air couriers? For anything more than catalogs, it's generally not a good idea. If problems with your shipment arise at the port of entry, no one can act as your agent.

How to Locate Suppliers

If you are planning a meeting outside the United States, your best bet is to select a U.S.-based company as the official freight forwarder. There will be no language problem, which is especially important when you're dealing with so many technical terms. And the time zone differences will be minimal, or perhaps nonexistent.

There are a dozen international exhibit freight forwarders based in the United States. To find them, check the directories issued by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association and the National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America Inc.

Rayna Skolnik wrote the TSEA Guide to Successful International Exhibiting, which is published by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association.

How To Evaluate Freight Forwarders


How long has the freight forwarder been in business? If you have exhibitors who will be shipping special equipment, is the forwarder experienced in handling such equipment?


Get current references. For exhibit freight forwarders, get the names of event organizers and, if practical, managers at foreign facilities. Affiliation with industry groups is a good indicator of professionalism.


Request a detailed list of the services that the forwarder can provide. Will he or she pick up materials at your place of business, or must you deliver to the consolidation point? Who handles the paperwork? Who handles customs clearance? Is the forwarder a licensed customs broker? If the forwarder is an exhibit freight forwarder, he or she should be able to provide door-to-booth and booth-to-door services. If you are organizing a pavilion, ask whether the freight forwarder will contract with the event organizer on your behalf.


If materials are being shipped to a trade show, will there be an on-site contact? Will that person be in the exhibitor service center, for maximum availability? Will that person speak English and the local language?


The components of shipping costs are the number of pieces, the size and weight of the pieces, the value of the shipment, and the type of commodity. Give the forwarder an example of something that is likely to be shipped and request a quote. The forwarder should provide a close estimate, a basis for comparing price/value ratios of the forwarders who are under consideration.

Which Way to Ship?

People often assume that you ship by air if you want to save time, and by sea if you want to save money. It's not that simple; other factors must be considered.


Air freight is faster, of course, but ocean freight isn't always prohibitively slow. And it can yield savings of up to 30 percent.


Ocean freight isn't always less expensive. There is a minimum charge. Thus sending a very small shipment by ocean freight will actually be more expensive than sending it by air freight.


You can ship larger or heavier pieces by ocean freight. Air freight is often limited to items with maximum exterior dimensions of 20 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet. Note that size and weight can offset each other. An item that is lightweight will incur a relatively high rate if it is large. A small, heavy piece will also incur a high rate.


Items that are sensitive to motion or dampness — computers and instruments, for example — should be shipped by air. But any item sent by ocean freight must be packed more carefully.