by Tom Isler | July 01, 2008

Empty convenion centerChanges in labor regulations at convention centers tend to come slowly and in small increments. Recently, for example, unions and contractors have been tinkering with 25 percent reductions in certain overtime wages or the extension of “straight time” windows, during which regular wages apply. These are measures planners appreciate but acknowledge won’t impact their bottom lines drastically. However, key decision makers in some cities have realized labor regulations need to be bent more dramatically in favor of exhibitors, or convention centers will risk losing business to places where trade shows can be put up in less time for less money, with fewer surprises and fewer headaches. “Whatever we can do to encourage exhibitors to participate in trade shows and experience control over their participation is a good thing,” says Jim Wurm, executive director of the Bend, Ore.-based Exhibitor Appointed Contractor Association.

In the past few years, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and St. Louis -- all strong union cities -- have accomplished significant revisions to their work rules, some with more fanfare than others, and in doing so have created more flexible or affordable working environments for exhibitors, particularly the smaller players. Planners who haven’t organized or participated in trade shows in those cities recently might be surprised to discover how much conditions have evolved. And more change is on the way.

Chicago:A Commitment to Customer Service

McCormick PlaceLast month, when a new collective bargaining agreement went into effect at McCormick Place for the union representing carpenters, convention center executives promised that the expanded straight time windows, reduced “double time” hours and the new ability for contractors to negotiate directly with the union would build on the customer-friendly contracts that had been signed in the past two years with riggers, decorators and electricians. Those contracts created new flexible start times for workers and reduced certain mandatory crew sizes.

McCormick Place is becoming a better environment for show organizers and exhibitors alike, says Steve Drew, assistant executive director for the Radiological Society of North America, based in Oak Brook, Ill., which holds one of McCormick Place’s largest annual meetings. In 2006, at the first RSNA show under the initial wave of new rules, exhibitors saved a total of $300,000 on labor costs, and they saved even more last year, Drew estimates. David Causton, general manager of McCormick Place, says exhibitors at the biggest trade shows collectively can save up to half a million dollars.

Improvements continue to be sought. A labor-management council regularly brings unions, building representatives and clients together to propose changes -- some of which relate to issues not immediately visible to planners, such as how unions receive information about the event calendar.

Last fall, the council produced the “Chicago Commitment,” a statement of promises regarding customer service that the convention center, the unions and contractors have signed. Among the guarantees: Customers will “know what to expect,” “not be involved in jurisdictional issues” and “know that we appreciate them.” The document doesn’t provide for the enforcement of the principles, but Causton says it’s a start.

The unions are getting the message. Robert Fulton, business manager for the Riggers Local 136, says his workers now receive more customer service training than ever and constantly are reminded about their role as city ambassadors.

Moving forward, Causton says he wants to enact a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy at the center (see “Crackdown on Drugs”). Also on the horizon: The Teamsters contract is due to expire at the end of the year, and Drew, for one, wants to see them follow the lead of the other unions. “I hope the baseline has been set,” he says.

What exhibitors can do at McCormick Place