Event Logistics: On With the Show

Tags: 3PL, Specialized Logistics

Illustration of a ringmaster

Behind every trade show, promotional event, B2B expo, and pop-up retail extravaganza stands a team of highly skilled logistics specialists.

The logistics teams orchestrating large-scale events are not just accustomed to mastering everyday industry challenges such as just-in-time delivery, efficient resource management, and coordinating a vast team of movers and players. They're also experts at responding to the conundrums that make every show and event a distinctive experience.

Organizing materials for a trade show is about more than picking up shipments at Point A and delivering them to Point B. It requires crossing troublesome Ts and dotting the inevitable Is.

Just ask the trade show logistics specialists at JSI, an international logistics and supply chain services company based in Burlingame, Calif. JSI handles the logistics associated with face-to-face marketing events, particularly for the high-tech market. For larger companies, that may mean dozens of events every year. To do a good job, JSI must align seamlessly with its clients' marketing and internal logistics teams.

That begins with a review of the annual exhibit schedule. Once the shows and expos have been identified, JSI examines all the exhibitor packages, which hold the first clues to the individual challenges embedded in each show.

"The exhibitor package triggers the entire plan," explains Scott Berlin, JSI's global vice president of sales and marketing. It outlines all the details, including shipping specifications and drop-dead deadlines for contracts and payment.

Even the most straightforward exhibitor packages contain complexities that might elude an exhibitor's own marketing and logistics teams. A specialist in trade show logistics, however, knows where the potential minefields might lie. For example, the packages for large expositions—such as the high-tech CES show in Las Vegas—can be measured in pounds, rather than ounces.

"Many exhibitors, especially those new to trade shows, don't know what to look for in exhibitor packages," Berlin notes. "We know the red flags, and we can help them navigate the process."

With red flags in mind, JSI meets with clients to review the exhibitor package, and identify key milestones and specifications that may complicate matters. This is also an opportunity for JSI to educate clients about how a failure to conform with shipping specifications or delivery schedules can result in heavy fines—or even worse.

"It is a big deal if we don't get materials to the show on time, because the event could land the client millions of dollars in contracts," Berlin says.

For many shows, deliveries are scheduled to the precise quarter hour, making transportation logistics especially tricky.

"Strictly adhering to the show organizer's published move-in and move-out dates and times is key," Berlin says. In fact, deliveries and pickups are scheduled so precisely that showing up at a loading dock too early can lead to a significant penalty—as can a late arrival.

Unfortunately, not every minute can be used efficiently. At some larger shows, delivery vehicles can choke the access points, meaning drivers are paid for inching through a line at a pedestrian's pace. "Sometimes drivers wait in queues for hours," Berlin says. "It's not unusual for 50 or 60 trucks to be in line to pick up or drop off at the largest shows."

For shippers new to trade show exhibiting, this reality can lead to unpleasant surprises. "They need to be aware that they might incur extra charges," Berlin explains, noting that the late arrival of materials can result in a surcharge as high as 30 percent. And drivers may need to be paid overtime for hours spent sitting in line.

Once JSI has the exhibition calendar in hand, it can begin organizing the logistics associated with moving show materials from one site to another. With its network of global warehouse facilities, JSI can store booths and equipment strategically. If a display is booked for Minneapolis, Atlanta, and San Diego, JSI stores it at the warehouse closest to the next destination, rather than delivering it back to the client's facility—a benefit that cuts lead times, minimizes transportation costs, and saves shippers money.

JSI also coordinates shipping packages from client facilities. When JSI personnel pick up these packages, they vet them carefully to ensure boxes are taped and labeled in accordance with instructions. When they're not, JSI makes appropriate adjustments, sometimes relabeling containers to prevent confusion at their final destination, or even crating equipment that is unlikely to withstand the journey in a standard box. It's not unusual for JSI to commission a custom crate for oversized or fragile items.

Such diligence is essential, because some event site managers may refuse to handle packages that don't meet specifications. That means the materials might never make it to the exhibit hall.

Compliance is especially critical at international shows, where specifications change dramatically from country to country, and a panoply of legal and cultural issues come into play.

One common issue involves marketing materials. "We sometimes need to send marketing collateral to the trade show organizer far in advance of the event date to allow time for the government to review it," Berlin says. Some officials will be on the lookout for anti-government messages; others, including many countries with Islamic traditions, will want to ensure that no culturally offensive images —bottles of liquor, or disrespectful depictions of the Koran —are displayed.

Exhibitors should allow plenty of time for this process, because missing the deadline could nullify all the preparation associated with an international show.

Another tricky logistics issue centers around customs compliance in different countries. Logistics teams need to be scrupulously attentive to each government's rules and processes. Any problems with documentation may mean that, even if a company's materials make it into the country, they may not make it back out—in time for another event, or at all. For exhibitors who need these materials at another show, this can be especially problematic.

To ensure that display materials cross borders smoothly—and without being subjected to taxation—most exhibitors working internationally rely on their logistics companies to complete and submit carnets, which function as temporary passports for cargo.

"A carnet itemizes everything an exhibitor is bringing in and out of a trade show, such as laptops and projectors," Berlin explains.

Everything listed in the carnet enters the country duty- and tax-free—although this exclusion does not apply to any items being left behind as giveaways. Inspectors at the exit point may check a carnet's inventory to ensure that every item—particularly technology—is returning to its origin. In some countries, computer equipment is scrutinized intensely—sometimes to protect domestic markets, sometimes to control information.

Some countries and shows issue strict admonitions about attempts to hand-carry materials into trade shows. That means a representative can't arrive on site with a box of brochures just off the presses, or a carton of souvenirs that bypassed the official approval process.

With so many intricacies at play, logistics teams need to be sure they have processes in place to monitor every paperwork requirement and every looming deadline. "It's essential to have many checks along the way to make sure everything is handled correctly," Berlin says.

The Exhibition Experts

For Tim Naegelin, an event manager based at the Boeing Company's St. Louis outpost, the pressing questions are always: What month is it, and what country am I in?

That's because he plans 12 to 15 events for Boeing's military product line annually. Events may be in Seattle or Sydney, Frankfurt, Germany or Frankfort, Kentucky. He begins planning fall events in spring, and winter events in summer. "I am constantly living in the future," Naegelin says.

Naegelin works with an extensive team of event personnel, about eight of whom carry a similar event load, for a total of more than 100 shows annually. These can be as small as an afternoon expo geared to high-level military brass, or a week-long extravaganza culminating in an air show. Many events are trade shows that attract military personnel from around the world.

Naegelin and his team begin by reviewing each show's target audience, location, and individual personality. The CES show—where entertainment and design are part of the fun— requires a bit of flash, while shows catering solely to military decision-makers tend to be more restrained.

"Planning teams work together to decide the exhibit's focus," Naegelin explains.

That focus will determine how existing displays are customized, or, if needed, how a new one is designed from scratch. The team identifies which aircraft models will be displayed—a decision that triggers immediate action. The list is rushed to an in-house logistics coordinator who reserves the models, as well as any desks, counters, or equipment essential for display.

Some of the models are sized to perch on a desktop. "Others hang from the ceiling—with a 10-foot wingspan," Naegelin notes.

The bigger shows occasionally require the presence of actual aircraft. Once these are booked, the responsibility for flying them to the event rests with another department. "If it's a small helicopter or unmanned vehicle, we ship it," Naegelin says. "One Boeing employee's entire responsibility is scheduling the aircraft."

The list of models to be displayed and the show's focus dictate exhibit design, which, in turn, dictates logistics. Boeing partners with outside exhibit houses to craft, produce, and store the displays and accompanying fixtures. In putting together an individual exhibit, the team draws from a vast library of models, demo desks and counters, banners, signs, and audiovisual resources.

Customizing the Experience

Still another factor in event logistics decisions is the venue location. For example, if the Boeing booth is traveling to sociable, relationship-oriented Europe, Naegelin and the designers might include a coffee service and a few extra chairs to promote relaxed chat. "Europeans prefer not to enter into business discussions right away," Naegelin notes. "That comes later. To-the-point Americans, on the other hand, won't linger over coffee. They may want to get down to business in a nearby conference room. No need to worry about the coffee service for them—but it makes sense to ensure that the booth includes some area where business details can be reviewed."

Once the exhibit's composition is finalized, items are assembled at a central location and dispatched to the exhibit site by a third-party carrier.

As Naegelin sees it, logistics planning for events requires a certain mindset, a relish for tracking moving parts, and an affinity for multitasking. "Usually, people who get into this job have a talent for organization," he notes.

High-Energy Event Organizers

Brian Harvey, executive vice president of sales and marketing for New York-based transportation and logistics company Axis Global Logistics, knows marketing isn't what it used to be. As a result, the logistics behind any kind of face-to-face marketing event—whether a trade show, sponsored sports rally, or street festival—involves adaptability, flexibility, and no small amount of ingenuity.

Founded in 1997, Axis focuses on supply chain integration. Within its event logistics operation—which represents about 25 to 30 percent of its business—that means a willingness to take on just about any task. Producing banners and signs? Yep. Warehousing perishable refreshments? No problem. Refurbishing snowmobiles fresh from an event? Done.

A growing number of the events frequented by Axis' clients are rooted in a concept known as guerilla marketing—an approach to building brand loyalty by relying on highly interactive events.

These extreme events demand more logistics, coordination, and inventory management than a traditional trade show because they involve less-traditional venues. They may take place at street level with no loading docks, and minimal support from an event manager. It's up to the logistics team to collect all the needed items and get them to the event site on time.

In addition to storing, maintaining, and transporting materials, Axis also procures them—everything from perishable foods to soccer balls, gaming consoles, portable putting greens, and folding chairs.

"Our staff sources these items, paying attention to pricing and quantities," Harvey says. A company subdivision, Axis Source, leverages its connections with printers to secure favorable pricing on promotional signs, banners, and billboards. Axis even coordinates their installation.

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Event logistics companies handle everything from time-critical deliveries of trade show equipment to storing booths and supplies after the exhibition.

For all their seeming spontaneity, these extreme interactive events require extensive planning and coordination. To make all this happen seamlessly, Harvey urges clients to invite Axis to the table early in the planning process, while events and designs are still on the drawing board. The firm prefers to work with clients from the inception of an event to its aftermath. In fact, the latter can be as time-consuming as planning and preparation, because it involves transporting all materials to one of several possible warehouses, repairing damaged items, and restocking perishables with the next engagement in mind.

"We try to embed ourselves into the beginning of the process, and become a partner within the supply chain," Harvey says, adding that a close relationship helps Axis not only coordinate logistics, but also contribute cost-saving ideas.

Major opportunities to reduce costs arise with strategic inventory management. Axis' extensive network of regional warehouses allows the company to store materials with the exhibit calendar in mind. For example, a client may want to stage an event that incorporates several motorcycles, DJ stands, and beach umbrellas. The bikes were last used in California, and are now warehoused nearby. Meanwhile, the DJ stands and umbrellas are center stage at an event in New Jersey.

Thanks to a warehouse management system that integrates with its transportation management system, Axis always knows what inventory is in a particular storage facility or on a truck. The Axis team also knows which items are under repair, which need a new coat of paint, and which need to be replaced—information that's critical for planning and budgeting purposes.

Short-Term Shows

Such close partnership is also imperative with a subtler form of marketing showmanship: pop-up events. These include everything from limited-engagement fashion shows to a store-within-a-store. Pop-up events allow two brands to align for mutual benefit. For example, a designer dress label may contract with a department store to preview its new line at a limited-time event. When the fashion show is over, all traces of the event disappear, and the store floor returns to normal.

Each year, Axis handles approximately 1,500 store-within-a-store events for an exclusive cosmetics label. That presents considerable challenges in inventory management. To handle the events, Axis has regionalized the inventory into four different areas around the country.

Not only does Axis warehouse and transport all the fixtures—including counters, carpets, graphics stands, and chandeliers—it works with the host store to ensure that everything is handled with minimal disruption.

"We bring our install team of carpenters, electricians, and tradesmen to lay carpeting and work on the electrical system, if it's needed," Harvey says. The company even arranges for fresh flower delivery and display.

The Axis team doesn't retreat into the shadows until the host venue has signed off on the work they've done. Once everything is assembled to standards, Axis photographs the store and files the images so the client can review them whenever it's time to refresh the design or rethink the concept. Axis also provides a computer repository of all the relevant paperwork—such as blueprints, insurance documents, and contracts—so the client is spared the stress of creating the paper trail.

"The hardest part for our clients is bringing all the elements together," Harvey says. By handling this task, Axis not only offers a value-added service, it makes its own job easier.

Not that easier is easy. As Harvey explains, event logistics always involves troubleshooting: "You are working toward Plan A, but sometimes you have to go to Plan B. You have to make decisions on the fly, and get creative on site."

That creative problem-solving—along with meticulous planning and big-picture perspective—helps event logistics specialists ensure every project is a memorable success.