A Breath of Fresh Air In the Windy City

The IHA believes exhibitors will save approximately 20 percent on labor costs thanks to labor union agreements at McCormick.

The IHA believes exhibitors will save approximately 20 percent on labor costs thanks to labor union agreements at McCormick.

By Allison Zisko

Recent labor law Changes at McCormick Place in Chicago should make it significantly cheaper to exhibit at the International Home & Housewares Show next month, but a significant side benefit of the reform legislation, according to some vendors, may be peace of mind.

Frustration with union work rules and fear of retaliation following disagreements with workers had contributed to what some called a stressful working environment at the convention center. High labor costs had also forced many smaller exhibitors to either pull out of the show or cross it off their list of possible venues, a situation that had prompted the International Housewares Association, which owns and runs the annual show, to consider pulling out of Chicago.

Instead of leaving the city however, the IHA, along with several other local show operators, helped push reform legislation through the Illinois state legislature, according to Mia Rampersad, the IHA’s vice president, trade shows. As a result, exhibitors will save, on average, approximately 20 percent on electrical labor rates and other service costs at the show this year, which takes place March 6-9.

Labor rates for electricians, plumbers and telecommunication installers are being reduced up to 23 percent from the 2010 show.

The new labor changes also created a more flexible work schedule by redefining overtime. Overtime—either time-and-a-half or double time, depending on the day—is now calculated only after a laborer works eight consecutive hours. “That’s huge, especially on the last day of the show, when [manufacturers] are taking their booths down and paying significant rates to get that done,” Rampersad said.

Exhibitors may now set up their booth of any size using ladders, hand tools and power tools designated as safe by McCormick Place.

Food costs—an area that had engendered a lot of complaints in the past, according to Rampersad—have been lowered as well. Booth catering costs have been reduced by about 30 percent (with no extra delivery charge for orders less than $250), she said, and exhibitors have the right to bring their own food to McCormick Place. “You don’t have to buy a case of water for $75. You can buy it at Target for $4.99,” Rampersad said, by way of example. “That’s huge savings.”

Finally, exhibitors can now unload and load small privately owned vehicles at the exhibit dock doors without hiring union labor.

Overall, the legislation expands exhibitor rights, giving them the power of choice, Rampersad said. The IHA is trying hard to get the word out, she added. It has issued press releases and printed brochures and has even hired people to notify individual exhibitors about the changes. It is also planning to gather a group of exhibitors together after the show this year to compare invoices from year to year to better determine actual savings.

Housewares and tabletop manufacturers praised the IHA for a job well done and outlined the ways in which they expect the new changes to benefit them in March.

“The housewares association needs to be commended,” said Sal Gabbay, president of Gibson and a member of the IHA’s Housewares Executive Advisory Committee, which Gabbay said had regularly discussed the problems at McCormick Place and the desire to keep the show in Chicago, with which it is so closely identified. “It kept the industry’s best interests in mind and has enabled resources to operate at reduced expense and more ease.”

Gabbay, whose company spent approximately $60,000 in labor costs at the 2010 Housewares Show, recalled troubles in the past with goods that were lost or not delivered on time, or minor disagreements with workers that caused bigger problems down the road. If you argued a little about an insignificant issue, Gabbay said, work would stop or proceed at a very slow pace. Gibson exhibits in several major American cities as well as abroad, Gabbay said, and Chicago was “the worst,” a scenario that at least one other vendor voiced.

The labor agreement “eases the process,” Gabbay said, but more importantly provides peace of mind.

“A tremendous amount of credit for this should be given to the staff of the IHA,” said Jeff Siegel, president and chief executive officer of Lifetime Brands, whose booth occupies more than 10,000 square feet in the South Hall. “They were in the forefront of pushing for the changes so that the show could economically remain in Chicago.”

Siegel said he will continue to use union labor and expects to save about 20 percent on labor costs, though he declined to say how much Lifetime spends on those costs for the housewares show. The biggest problem the company encountered in past years was the high percentage of overtime rates, Siegel said.

“The new IHA/labor union deal will definitely help Epilady,” said Amir Abileah, vice president.” In the past, we have always incurred some sort of overtime fee for booth set-up. It is always one light bulb here, one carpet stain there and so on; that makes us have to get the guys back in to take care of things. The straight-time agreement will help cut those extra dollars off the set-up and tear-down bills, which in some years were much higher than anticipated or budgeted, mainly due to overtime. I still find it hard to believe that IHA managed to swing the deal, but it shows that they have the influence and the understanding that we as members are looking for in our organization.”

Abileah said the savings on labor costs will allow Epilady to spend more money on advertising or other types of promotions before, during and after the show. “This money will be spent on other show needs,” he said.
Francesco de Flaviis, director of marketing for De’Longhi USA, believes the changes will save money for many exhibitors, “especially those who were on the fence about exhibiting due to rising costs.”

He said De’Longhi had altered its trade show approach to reduce labor-related costs. It made the placement of lighting more efficient and targeted so there was less electrical set-up, and it reduced drayage costs by shipping products with the booth instead of individually—but the company will save even more money with this deal.

“The McCormick Place labor reform may have saved the show for Chicago,” said Jeff Norling, chief executive officer and co-founder of Outset. “Our investment in this show is substantial, and it was frustrating to feel like you have been taken advantage of before the show even begins. Keeping costs under control is vital to its long-term success.

“All of these changes are good,” he continued. “We will take advantage of doing some simple stuff ourselves, we will be delighted to bring in our own food, we will find great benefit in being able to unload our car or use a dolly to bring stuff into our booth, and the cost savings speaks for itself.”—David Gill and Andrea Lillo contributed to this story.