February 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions Labor Gains - February 2000 Current Issue
February 2000

Labor Gains

Industry efforts to improve union services are paying off

By Amy Drew Teitler

When Ahmeena Young walks the halls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the denim-clad union guys always notice her. And Young, the center’s senior vice president of marketing, enjoys the attention. “They always have a smile for me,” she says.

It’s not what one might think. Laborers at the center fondly call Young “the sensitivity lady,” as she is one of the pioneers of the center’s program to educate its union members about hospitality. She is also one of the program’s teachers. “We do the training not just for the labor unions, but for our entire staff,” says Young. “That came out of the understanding that in this industry, the thing that will set you apart is service to your customers.”

While managers of some venues feel labor issues are not their problem, others have taken proactive steps to improve local union employees’ attitudes and customer service. Although sources on both sides readily admit there is more ground to gain, some cities’ efforts to improve planner-union relations appear to be working.

Past imperfect
As the date for the American Library Association’s 1999 Mid-Winter Meeting approached, Deidre Ross and her staff grew a bit apprehensive. Ross, the association’s director of conference services, had heard complaints about Philadelphia’s unions from those who attended the ALA’s 1995 meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Says Paul Graller, who had Ross’ job back then, “There was confusion between stagehands and electricians over who got jurisdiction for computer installation and things of that nature. There were arguments.” Now vice president of Westmont, Ill.-based show management firm Hall-Erickson, Graller points out that the association’s 1995 meeting was the first show at the center after the Philadelphia Marriott had opened. “The hotel was nonunion, and the center was union,” he says. “Everyone was trying to claim as much work as they could.”

Ross was pleasantly surprised by the 1999 event. “It was an excellent meeting; there was not one complaint,” she says. “It was incredible.” She attributes its success in part to a productive pre- conference meeting with the heads of all the unions involved. “It gave the workers a face,” she says. Electricians, carpenters, stagehands and show management all listened to each other’s concerns.

Graller, who still manages the ALA’s shows, says the most noticeable change was in the laborers’ attitudes. “People kept saying, ‘Everyone is so nice.’"

Being “nice” is a top priority for Bob Butera, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The periodic complaints he received following shows over the years always were more behavior- than skill-related. “Years ago, the trade show industry had all but dried up in Philadelphia,” he says. “We didn’t have a work force used to doing this kind of work. They had been working on construction sites.”

Because the laborers are on the front lines of customer contact, they should be trained to deal with clients, Butera and his colleague, Ahmeena Young, agreed. “Our finance department has a lot less contact with customers than our labor unions, and they get training,” Young says. “Why wouldn’t we do it with our unions?”

The center’s hospitality training program aims, among other things, to instill in union workers an appreciation of a simple business principle: When customers are happy, everyone eats. Young often will walk into a training session wearing jeans and will sit among the members, chatting casually. When she walks to the head of the class, participants are pleasantly surprised to see how well center management can blend in.

Young outlines fundamentals of good service (“When I ask them if they go back to spend money in a restaurant where they were treated poorly, they see my point”) and offers a primer on the hospitality industry. She explains how vital the workers are to ensuring a bright future for the center. She tells them about Philadelphia’s tourism industry and projects that are directly related to the center’s success.

Attitude adjustment
Similar efforts have paid off in Chicago. During the past two years, Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place and Navy Pier, has implemented labor changes return customers have noticed.

A July 1999 ruling merged the jurisdictions of the decorators’ and carpenters’ unions, eliminating interunion scuffles during setup. “Their consolidated work force was extremely helpful,” says Dan Dobson, president of Dobson & Associates Ltd., a trade show management company in Washington, D.C. His firm ran the Washington, D.C.-based National Cable Television Association’s Cable ’99 show, which came to Chicago last year for the first time in two decades. The association will return to McCormick Place this year.

For decades, Chicago was a place many show planners and exhibitors dreaded because of bad attitudes, jurisdictional arguments and strict limits imposed on work exhibitors could do themselves. “Most managers of large shows 10 years ago would admit Chicago had the best-trained labor force, but the unions had a real problem getting that across as a counter-argument to the problems management saw,” concedes Jim Reilly, CEO of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau and former CEO of the MPEA. “The biggest thing for the exhibitors was the frustration of having to sit there not doing the simple tasks other cities permitted them to do.”

“The burden of those jurisdictional decorator-carpenter decisions have been taken off of the customer,” says Don Turner, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. Communication also has improved. During the past year, says Turner, “we made a set of procedural changes, and we now have a committee in place that talks after a show about how things could have been done better.”

Post-show feedback is the most telling indicator for Stan Butler, director of meetings and expositions for the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists. “What I have heard from exhibitors is that the attitudes have really improved,” he says. After its recent Annual Meeting and Food Expo, IFT surveyed exhibitors. “Out of about 850 exhibitors, I only heard two complaints,” he says. Neither gripe was related to the unions.

Room for improvement
Not every city can claim to have improved union issues. San Francisco’s Moscone Center is cited by some show managers as one place where more effort is needed.

“The key thing is the union attitude,” said an exhibit sales and services manager who asked to remain anonymous. Her California-based show, with a total attendance of about 17,000, meets annually at Moscone. She says attendance is rising, despite complaints.

“We do not expect them to bend rules, but it would be nice if they were more helpful. Our exhibitors always ask why we do the show in San Francisco. They say it’s too expensive and the help is not on a caliber with labor prices.”

Still, she says, the show has no plans to relocate. “San Francisco is a great draw. I think the folks at Moscone know that, and that’s why things don’t change.”

Marley Gibson, former director of marketing and events for SureSell Multimedia, a Newton, Mass.-based software company, also had a negative experience at Moscone during a 1999 show, although two previous shows in the city went off without a union-related hitch. Gibson, now assistant director for the Annual Giving Fund at Boston University, a direct-mail fund-raising organization, says problems arose when carpenters were assembling her booth and she and a colleague moved a piece of another exhibitor’s display out of the way. “Immediately, I had three guys screaming at me,” she says. Gibson’s suggestions for how to assemble her booth also were unwelcome. “It turns out that the union filed a grievance about us. It was pure harassment.”

Julie Burford, assistant general manager of the Moscone Center, says complaints about union labor are infrequent. “If we had serious complaints of this nature, we would certainly put a program in place.”

Burford says pre-conference meetings are the norm at Moscone, as are follow-up surveys “that question every aspect of the customer’s experience.” Attitude, she says, is hardest to control. “Ensuring that every worker has a customer-friendly attitude is a difficult task,” she says. “The union people are not employed by the convention center. [Moscone] is merely the house in which it all happens.”


How many electricians does it take to screw in a trade show booth’s light bulb? Such questions are not always lead-ins for a punch line; working with union labor is serious business. Follow these tips from the pros to keep union relationships friendly and fruitful.

Paul GrallerEducate the masses.
“Customize the manual for each city. Tell exhibitors what they are permitted to do in a positive manner, rather than what they can’t do. Help them understand the parameters of working in a union city.”
Paul Graller, Vice President
Hall-Erickson, Westmont, Ill.

Give a heads-up.
“Contact people at your venue. Let them know what your needs are, and the show will run smoothly. If the work force is briefed beforehand, people rarely will be disappointed.”
Don Turner, President
Chicago Federation of Labor

Free your mind.
“Leave your preconceived notions at home. Make it your business to seek out union leadership, have a cup of coffee and talk about your show. We can relieve your fears.”
Bill Hogan, Vice President
Teamsters Local 714 Chicago

Keep it real.
“The exhibitors who have the most problems generally are the ones who come unprepared. Make sure they have realistic expectations.”
Jim Reilly, CEO
Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau

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