Bone Yards, Coffee, Secrets and Squish Balls: An Introduction

March 23, 2012


By Heather Howard, CTSM

BAM!!! was the sound of my future career being dropped onto my new desk. Not in a figurative manner, but a literal one. I faced a stack of Exhibitor Magazines at least 10” high. I had just been hired by a local exhibit house to handle exhibit sales. This world was completely foreign to me. When I heard the word “Exhibit” or “Exhibition” I couldn’t help but think of a man flashing in a trench coat. And this is what my introduction to the Trade Show/Conventions/Conferences/Events world was to be. A stack of industry magazines …

So I pored through all of them – actually more like 20 in total – within a few days, sometimes thinking I was reading a foreign language. Words like “drayage”, “EAC”, “marshaling yard” and best of all, “bone yard.“ My uninformed mind brought up a vision of pizza crusts on a plate. Crusts are pizza bones for the dog in my house – it sounded like his part of pizza night. But I digress. Bone yards can actually be a scary place when there are parts of a shipment missing 10 minutes before the show starts and they are found under stacks of empty crates.

Through my “self-education” on the job via Exhibitor Magazine, I ran across the CTSM program. CTSM (Certified Trade Show Marketer) is the only university- affiliated professional certification program in the exhibit marketing industry. I am indebted to that program, and the people that run it. It is the most comprehensive training in the industry. I will probably talk often about the program in my articles and classes. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to gain the knowledge that I am going to be sharing with you.

However, even the most educated manager or planner will still have to experience the dreaded FIRSTS.

Not all FIRSTS are temporary moments when it feels like the world is ending. When continuing life is based on if the phone rings after hours, or doesn’t ring, and if there is still an office where you are welcomed in the morning. The dreaded walk of shame to the desk the next day after a costly cannot-be-controlled Murphy’s Law slap across the face lesson is always the worst.

This is a nice FIRST for me. I am sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by industry magazines and old seminar handouts. And of course, lots of coffee. WITH chocolate and whipped cream, please. I am writing my first article for Missouri Meetings & Events Magazine and working on seminars for the MM&E Expo. It gives me a different perspective to reflect on all that I have learned through formal education and real world experiences. There are also a lot of blogs, articles, webinars and such on the idealistic world of exhibiting and trade shows. They were invaluable to me when I was learning this industry, suggesting what not to do, or what should be done based on this research or that poll on the subject.

However, the real world of exhibiting isn’t often typed out in a training manual, or mentioned in a webinar. Even with the knowledge I gained from outside sources, the biggest teacher was all of the FIRSTS that I had to experience in the growing pains of learning this industry.

The first time I cost a client a few thousand dollars (that is the amount I will admit to publicly) it was more painful than a “few.” All because I didn’t have a good relationship with my chosen freight vendor. I decided to go with a random carrier that called and was supposedly associated with the show. It failed to deliver until the day after the show started. A failed $3,000 shipment snowballed into a $50,000 loss. Ok, I guess for this example I will admit the price of my failed shame. Yeah, $50,000. Being new in the industry, I couldn’t comprehend that a failed day at a show cost the equivalent of a nice brand new car.

I learned how important it is not only to choose the right freight carrier but to have a strong personal relationship with them as well. This is a process no training manual can teach you. Adding a personal touch to the relationship and creating a mutual obligation and respect is the key to building a strong vendor relationship. I want to be treated like a person, not a booth number!

I choose my vendors based on whether I can call them in the middle of the night, on their cell phone, by their bed, while they are on vacation, and demand to know, “Where the HELL is my freight?!” And I expect it to be taken care of that moment.

Even in the world of rules and regulations, to-do’s and not-to-do’s, there are always grey areas in the world of exhibiting, even to the experienced planner. Sometimes it may be by necessity, by creativeness, or just by curiosity of pushing the boundary that an exhibit/meeting manager looks outside the box and makes things happen.

However, sometimes pushing the envelope borders on questionable industry ethics. The most amusing part of working towards my CTSM certification had to be rewriting a section of my Professional Portfolio after it was red flagged. I guess flirting with the security guards so my co-workers could sneak cases and boxes to our booth space without having to pay $1,500 in drayage wasn’t the best thing to admit. But it worked, and I got a pat on the back from my boss. Sometimes, you just have to do those things.

There are so many things I look forward to sharing (uh … exposing) from inside the exhibit world in future articles and seminars to help with your exhibit planning. Just knowing who to talk to can save 50 percent on a freight budget. Knowing which vendors require you to go through a middleman and which ones you can contract directly will reduce the huge amount of up-charge that gets passed through.

You will learn how you can make deadlines mean, “We have a few more days.” And of course, one that will probably get me hung up on a banner stand and pelted with squishy stress balls by fellow exhibit houses: The insane mark-ups and percentages that meeting managers have to pay vendors and exhibit houses for things just as easily done themselves.

At the Missouri Meetings & Events PLANit Tech-Know Expo on May 21 & 22 I will be discussing 30 secrets that will enhance your exhibiting experience – valuable information from an insider’s view of the exhibit industry. These will include a lot of tips on freight logistics, staff training, booth design, and lead follow-up, to give a few examples. Just one session will save months of on-the-job training for a rookie and introduce new ideas to an industry veteran. And if you happen to be from an exhibit house, leave the squishy projectiles at the office please. I have drawers full of them! MM&E

Heather Howard, CTSM, is AFRS National Convention Exhibit Manager at Exhibit Arts, LLC. With 14 years of experience working in an exhibit house environment and managing exhibit programs for commercial and government clients, Heather manages over 60 medical events a year for the Health Professions department of the Air Force Recruiting Service.

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