Easing Labor Rules

Some key cities have lifted restrictions to become more planner-friendly

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


Insiders on how they’d change the convention center labor system:

Capped drayage costs. Stephen Schuldenfrei, former president of the Trade Show Exhibitors Association in Chicago, wants contractors and show management to stop jacking up drayage costs that exhibitors pay, even if it means raising the price per square foot of booth space.

Eight-hour workdays. Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events, says overtime charges should kick in only after workers put in eight hours.

Predictable rates. Chris Price, vice president of the Reston, Va.-based Graphic Arts Show Co. Inc., says bills should match client

Realistic contracts. Ahmeenah Young, executive vice president and general manager of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, says union contracts are too similar to those used by general construction and manufacturing workers and should be tailored more to trade show tasks.

More D.I.Y. Mark Leahy, general manager of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, would like to increase the size of booths in which exhibitors can do most of their own work. -- T.I.

Detroit:More Do-It-Yourself Allowances

The changes that were put in place at Cobo Center between 2002 and 2006 have rendered the building surprisingly flexible for small exhibitors.

“An exhibitor with a small booth won’t even recognize that they are in a union facility,” says David Austin, Cobo’s director of sales and marketing. “I’ll admit we haven’t done a good job of promoting this,” he adds.

Exhibitors can carry in more material and conduct more work in larger booths (up to 400 square feet), and they have longer windows of time in which to do it (four hours, in most cases) before they must hire outside labor. Exhibitors can do some cleaning and assembly of equipment, including A/V equipment. A new electricity provider has resulted
in additional savings, Austin adds.

Connie Eren, manager of corporate services for SAE International, a Warrendale, Pa.-based engineering association that produces two large events in Detroit, reports her exhibitors are “delighted” with the new rules. Some not only save money, she notes, but they save time, too, pushing back arrival dates because load-in now takes less time.

Detroit’s reputation as having cumbersome labor regulations is outdated, says Carla Conner-Penzabene, director of sales for the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When convention managers and site-selection committees sit down with building managers and learn about the new way of doing business, their jaws literally drop,” she says.

What exhibitors can do at Cobo Center, Detroit









Philadelphia:Let Exibitors’ Freedom Ring

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Convention Center implemented a “customer satisfaction agreement” that allowed exhibitors to perform more work on their own, to help reduce costs and unnecessary delays and headaches. The rules were revised a couple of years ago.

But that’s ancient history, according to Ahmeenah Young, the center’s executive vice president and general manager, who is rewriting exhibitors’ rights yet again at the facility. This summer, she plans to release new rules regarding work typically done by stagehands and electricians. “I expect to come out with something tantalizing for customers,” she says.

Young does not have specifics to discuss yet, but she generally is in favor of reducing the number of people that must be involved to accomplish certain tasks. In some cases, that will mean exhibitors can do more work themselves. In others, it will mean relaxing jurisdiction rules so union workers will be able to complete jobs from start to finish, instead of relying on two or three additional unions to contribute along the way. Money isn’t the only motivating factor; waiting for a union worker to perform a menial task exhibitors could do themselves is an unnecessary burden, Young says.

Gregg Talley, president of Mt. Royal, N.J.-based Talley Management Group, an association and convention management company, concurs that’s one of the center’s most pressing issues on the labor front. “There are six unions in the building, and that’s substantially more” than some competitors, he says.

Flexible labor rules will complement the center’s expansion as a key incentive for planners, Young says.

What exhibitors can do at Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia

Effective July 1, any rigging crew at the San Diego Convention Center must have a supervisor who’s completed the Entertainment Technician Certification Program. However, in the past, rigging that used the exhibit hall’s structural steel could be done only by the in-house A/V company. Now outside general services contractors can provide nonproduction rigging to clients if they have an ETCP-certified supervisor and if the company signs a contract with the facility. Additionally, the convention center has reduced the per-point rigging price from $70 to $50 when using the center’s structural steel.

St. Louis:Bending the Old Rules

In April, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission reached a deal with three A/V unions to revise labor regulations at America’s Center. “We’re ecstatic,” says Kathleen Ratcliffe, CVC president. “This is something we’ve been trying to do for 16 months.” The new agreement “dramatically changes the way customers and contractors do business in St. Louis,” she says.

Under the new rules, exhibitors can run more A/V equipment themselves and, in some cases, can hire fewer union workers per event. Exhibitors no longer are required to hire local union workers to monitor A/V equipment in meeting rooms or to make audio or video recordings, nor do exhibitors have to pay a union worker to “shadow” work done by a nonlocal technician.

“Everyone understands the need for change,” says Stephen Schoemehl, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1. The unions take the CVC executives at their word that such measures are necessary to attract more business to St. Louis, he adds. “If we can bend some work rules and the result, in the long run, is better for St. Louis and the St. Louis economy, that will make up for” any negative consequences of the changes, he says.

The CVC was unsuccessful at getting the unions to sign a “memorandum of understanding” which would have effectively made the CVC the “employer” of all workers in the building, a measure that would have taken some power away from the unions.

The A/V unions also agreed to a new drug-testing policy and to adhere to minority-hiring standards. Ratcliffe says she’s interested in extending those requirements to other unions and workers at America’s Center in the near future. So far, Ratcliffe says, the other unions have expressed support for such changes.

What Exhibitors CAN do at America





Labor loophole:Contractors Still Rule

Not all labor gains filter down to clients and exhibitors, however. Just because a union agrees to overtime reductions, for example, doesn’t mean a client’s bill will reflect those changes. When general service contractors and show management agree on a contract and set rates for exhibitors, the hourly labor wages customers pay very often are marked up significantly from what’s written in the union contract. That’s how, in part, contractors make money.

That’s a reasonable business decision, but at the same time, those practices can negate hard-won union concessions, says Ken Viscovich, trade show industry representative of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Over the years, he’s negotiated “double time” wages out of collective-bargaining agreements in certain East Coast cities, but that hasn’t stopped general service contractors in those cities from charging exhibitors double-time rates and pocketing the margin, he says.

Viscovich is quick to point out that the problem is not contractor’s greed but the way trade show costs are established and distributed. In order to win a show client, a contractor might offer “complimentary” aisle carpet and registration counters to show organizers. But to recoup the cost of those items, the contractors have to jack up the hourly labor rates or the material handling, or drayage, rates that exhibitors pay. To Viscovich, that approach seems convoluted, if not misleading: What exhibitors supposedly pay for labor is actually covering the costs of aisle carpet and registration counters.

For exhibitors, that system yields frustration. When Viscovich dons his exhibitor hat to attend industry trade shows on behalf of the Carpenters, for example, he says “it costs me more to move the booth from the loading docks to the place it’s erected than it costs to ship the booth from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C.

“Personally, I’d rather pay more for the booth, pay charges up front, know how much the booth is going to cost and pay reasonable rates for moving freight inside the building,” he adds.

Other exhibitor-friendly changes are undermined in other ways: Richard Onufrey, operations manager for CSI Worldwide Inc., a New York City-based general services contractor, says some overtime reductions at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, such as the recent concessions made by the Teamsters, essentially are “negated by management fees” charged by the center itself, which acts as its own labor broker.

Furthermore, union concessions at convention centers don’t necessarily extend to other meeting venues. More premium hours apply to trade show labor at hotels or at Madison Square Garden in New York, for example, than at the Javits center itself, Onufrey says.

So while unions endure a lot of criticism for high labor rates, the reality of the situation is more complex. Union concessions, from an exhibitor’s perspective, offer opportunities but do not guarantee a better trade show experience. The more rights unions relinquish to exhibitors, the more likely exhibitors are to save. And even union representatives agree that the more that can be done to create satisfied exhibitors, the better for everyone involved, including unions, show managers, contractors, buildings and cities. But as Viscovich and others point out, that can only occur if show management and contractors do their part to build on the foundation of union leniency.

How Washington, D.C.’s
E. Washington Convention
Center’s policy works:

  • The center’s “right of entry” policy applies to all employees and hired labor.
  • Fifteen percent of the work force is tested each year.
  • A third-party company administers random tests at least four times a year.
  • Workers who test positive have the ability to defend themselves before a medical review officer.
  • Workers who cannot excuse their positive tests enroll in a 45-day rehabilitation program and are subject to further tests before and after rejoining the work force.
  • Repeat offenders are dismissed and placed on a “do not work” list.
  • Crackdown on Drugs

    How can a worker who just smoked crack out in the convention center parking lot be prepared to deliver superior customer service to an exhibitor? That’s how Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events, is framing the discussion about drugs at convention centers. One of IAEE’s central initiatives this year is to convince first-tier convention centers to adopt drug-free workplace policies, along the lines of a program first implemented in Washington, D.C.

    “There are so many reasons to adopt,” says Hacker, ticking off a list that includes increased safety and customer service, lower health-care costs, reduced damage to infrastructure as a result of accidents, and a more professional environment.

    The effort to bring the problem to light has been several years in the making. Back in 2004, Tom Mobley, then general manager and CEO of the Washington Convention Center Authority, suspected there was a drug problem at his convention center. Some unions and contractors had drug-testing policies, but not all of them were being enforced, and they didn’t cover everyone working at the convention center.

    With the help of several industry leaders, including Ken Viscovich, the trade show industry representative with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and Joe Sangregorio, then a regional director at GES Exposition Services, Mobley supervised the drafting of a “right of entry” policy that subjected every worker at the convention center to mandatory random drug tests, conducted by an unbiased third party. Tests consisted of breath and urine analysis, and the results would be judged according to standards set by the Department of Transportation. Those who failed the test would have the opportunity to defend themselves to a medical review officer before being enrolled in a 45-day rehabilitation program. Repeat offenders would be prohibited from working at the center.

    Sangregorio says the results of the first test, in 2005, were “staggering.” Practically every other person -- 48 percent -- tested positive. Over the course of the year, the number of failed drug tests fell, and now the positive test rate hovers around 3 to 5 percent. Sangregorio believes some people have cleaned up their acts; others have found work elsewhere.

    The Javits Center in New York began random drug testing in 2006, but others have been slow to adopt similar policies.

    That’s because some convention center executives don’t feel it’s their responsibility, says Sangregorio, and they’d prefer to leave the issue to unions and contractors. Viscovich adds that some might be afraid of catching supervisors, not just regular workers.

    Furthermore, unions might be more willing to accept drug-testing policies were they not tied directly to DOT standards, which are based on detecting traces of drugs in the body rather than the levels that constitute impairment. In other words, a person who used illegal drugs a week or two before the trade show, but who was clean during show hours, would still trigger a positive test, and that could be viewed as “legislating morality,” as opposed to safety, Viscovich points out.

    Other center executives feel they can’t afford the program (each test costs between $50 and $75), although Sangregorio argues that costs associated with accidents and health care are much higher than the price of testing. “Forget money. We want a safe, drug-free environment for our employees, customers and vendors,” he says.

    And because most executives would endorse that message, Hacker believes it’s only a matter of time before more are persuaded to enact comprehensive policies. -- T.I.