by Brendan M. Lynch | May 01, 2005

National Restaurant Association show floorTrading spaces?
The National
Restaurant Association
show might move.

The high cost and Byzantine rules of unionized labor at Chicago’s McCormick Place appear to have driven away some of the Windy City’s biggest and longest-running events, while other shows seem to be eyeing the door. 
    “A lot of other cities are just less expensive to move a show into and out of,” said Steve Drew, assistant director for scientific assembly and informatics with the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Radiological Society of North America, which puts on the nation’s largest medical convention at McCormick Place each year, but might not for much longer. “The labor rules and jurisdictions are the problem,” Drew added. “With so many different unions’ rules and pay scales, it’s confusing and expensive.”
    “It’s harder and harder to justify the cost difference between Chicago and other cities,” said Mary Pat Heftman, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, Chicago convention holders for the past 56 years but now considering moving to Las Vegas or Orlando. 
    Last June, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich called together convention industry and labor representatives, challenging them to keep Chicago’s convention industry viable. “We just can’t compete with other cities if we retain outdated work rules that result in soaring costs,” Daley said at the time. Since then, though, the effort seems to have stalled, and recent months have seen some major defections.
    This past January, Norwalk, Conn.-based Reed Exhibitions said it was moving the mega National Manufacturing Week, after decades spent at McCormick, to the Donald E. Stephen Center in nearby Rosemont, Ill. And
in March, New York City-based industrial manufacturer CMM International said it too would move to Rosemont, citing high labor costs. 
    Chicago convention officials are not panicking yet. Citing a desire to make shows at McCormick a “more cost-effective experience,” Billy Weinberg, spokesperson for Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, said any losses in business would be offset by new customers, such as Supercomm.
    Meanwhile, a $1.14 billion expansion of McCormick Place is in the works, to open in 2008 with 470,000 square feet of exhibit space and 250,000 square feet of meeting space.