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Noel Ward

Real World Digital

By Noel Ward

About Noel

Noel Ward is Managing Director of Brimstone Hill Associates, which specializes in marketing communications in the printing industry, including video production. He can be reached at 603-672-3635 or via email at His website is, and he has a YouTube channel.

Smart Moves for Chicago and McCormick Place

OK, so this isn’t directly about digital printing. Or even printing. But it is one of my favored topics and one I usually find myself touching on as shows approach.

You may have heard that the playing field for trade shows in Chicago—home to GRAPH EXPO and the PRINT shows put on by Graphic Arts Show Co. (GASC)—has shifted slightly in favor of the very companies ponying up the big bucks to display their wares in McCormick Place. A new Illinois state law gives exhibitors the right to do far more of their own booth set-up than in the past, a move that can significantly lower the costs for companies participating in a show. It won't happen all at once, but this is good news. And coming on the heels of reductions in drayage (moving equipment in and out), it brings a smile to the show planners at all the vendors.

Predictably, the unions don't like it because it hits directly at one of their key revenue generators—oversized work crews, overtime billings and paying people to be little more than warm bodies for substantial hourly wages. Like the people who walk around with tennis balls on a stick, rubbing invisible heel marks off the floor.

Scratch any vendor and you’ll quickly hear the war stories about skirmishes with union stewards, workers and assorted drones about getting carpet put down, banners and trusses hoisted, electrical and Internet connections made, and placing equipment where needed. Then there’s the absurd costs of what is often semi-skilled labor and the foolishness of having to wait for an electrician to plug two extension cords together and throw a switch, or a carpenter to tighten a bolt on a partition. Then there's the endless issue of damage to machinery, either accidentally or through willful negligence. Of course, this could get worse now that the unions will be getting less out of every show. After all, who better to take out some frustration on than the equipment of some big company?

Anyway, it's about time. Chicago has been feeling the pinch, not only of our rocky economy, but from cities like Las Vegas and Orlando where more enlightened union work rules are in play, making convention venues in those cities more financially attractive for show organizers and the companies that pay the freight. Personally, I like Chicago far better than Vegas (a waste of perfectly good desert) or Orlando and its ridiculous amusement parks, but I sure like the lower costs when I go to those cities.

So far, the law, which was enacted in early June, is expected to hold up in court. As well it should. Advocates of unions, right to work and the like, can whine all they want. My father worked in the trades, so I understand how this works. But the bigger picture is that the carpenters, riggers, electricians and other tradesmen have been riding a gravy train fueled by a business model that has long since outlived its usefulness.

The union leaders and the rank and file need to understand that while their wages may not seem like an important part of a show booth that covers half an acre of McCormick floor space, it's a cost seen as increasingly onerous, and even more so in an uncertain economy. With major players at GRAPH EXPO and numerous other shows pulling out or sharply reducing their footprint, and many firms questioning the cost effectiveness of trade shows to begin with, the move to help control trade show costs is a wise and welcome one. For union workers, getting paid less to set up a show beats not having a show to set up.

The next trick is to get Chicago hotel prices out of the stratosphere. Where do these people think they are? I've gotten much more for my money in Paris than I can find in the Windy City.


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