Trade Show Managers Blast McCormick Place
Organizers of five shows typically held at McCormick Place in Chicago—including a representative from the Graphic Arts Show Co. (GASC), which manages Graph Expo and PRINT—appeared before an Illinois legislative committee hearing this month to voice their frustration in holding events there, including the union labor costs/work rules and the sky-high markups they pay for electrical and food service. In response, some lawmakers are calling for the Illinois General Assembly to divert some of its hotel tax revenues to help subsidize the operations at the convention facility.
"Orlando and Las Vegas both provide subsidies for their operations," said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who chaired the hearing on how to make McCormick Place more competitive with other venues. Cullerton pointed out, for example, that McCormick Place has been overcharging for electrical and food service as a way to make ends meet, according to a Chicago Tribune article.
“We've gone from complaints about labor costs to anger and demand for change,” the Tribune reported Chris Price, vice president of GASC, as testifying. Vince Lapinski, CEO of manroland North America, also spoke on behalf of the GASC to present the perspective of a trade show exhibitor.
Tim Roby, head of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, added that failure by the General Assembly to address the problem before July 1 will see five, to as many as 20, more trade shows follow the lead of plastics and healthcare industry events that opted to relocate away from Chicago last year.
A similar Sun-Times column about the hearings said some labor leaders place the blame on the biggest show contractors, Freeman Co. and Global Experience Specialists. “Speakers at the hearing said the markups are usually 30 percent, but some from labor said the increases can be more than 40 percent,” wrote Sun-Times columnist David Roeder. Price and Ralph Nappi, GASC president, noted to me in a later phone call that the unions have always been quick to point the blame elsewhere. And, the biggest issue isn't union wages and labor rates, it's outdated union work rules that make it so expensive and frustrating for exhibitors, they contend.
As a printer, with your own business survival at stake in these tough times, perhaps you don't care how much it costs exhibitors to participate in our industry's most important annual event. But you should—and much more so than that outrageous price you might have paid for a lousy hot dog and a soda while taking a break from walking the show floor.
Higher trade show expenditures directly impact industry suppliers' bottom lines, which ultimately get passed along to consumers (you) in several ways: higher capital equipment and software prices and less money available for sales and service support staffing, let alone funding for R&D initiatives.
To boost PRINT 09, the GASC created a financial relief package totaling more than $3 million in credits for exhibitors. This covered heavy equipment material handling costs after the machinery arrived at the McCormick Place dock, and provided similar savings for those exhibitors that did not display equipment. A noble effort during unprecedented economic times, but perhaps still not enough for an exhibitor the size of Heidelberg USA when tallying the total cost of bringing heavy iron and support staff to man a large booth during a show. Let alone the costs for booth construction and design, and the T&E expenses for airplane tickets, hotel rooms and customer dinners.
Some may recall the heady days when the GASC held Graph Expo East in New York, then Philadelphia, as well as a West Coast edition in Los Angeles. Exhibitor demand resulted in the status quo of a single, annual event in a geographically central location. Unlike some other shows that could easily move from McCormick Place to another venue, Chicago really is the most logical city to host our primary printing industry show, especially given the large number of printing establishments based in the surrounding area. Move to another region to potentially lower costs for exhibitors, but then face the reality of reduced show floor traffic with less Midwestern printers coming to the show.
So, unlike some other conventions with no real benefit to staying in Chicago, the GASC has to take a less threatening stance. And, don't expect union work rule and other changes at McCormick Place to come easily. It's not the first time the GASC and other show organizers have sought improvements. Even in the current economy, with cities battling for trade shows and the money that visitors spend in restaurants and the like while there, the unions in Illinois carry a lot of clout with state lawmakers. With the Illini state's long-time reputation for fostering a dysfunctional, often corrupt, political process, changes in how McCormick Place is operated, certainly radical ones, remain far from any kind of slam dunk.
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