A Short Guide to Working with Unions at a Trade Show

Promoting a brand is hard work. It can encompass everything from the hat you wear to the commercial you create to the website you manage. At some point it might even introduce you to the world of trade shows. Trade shows are great opportunities for you to showcase your brand and learn about your industry; not only can you get information and images in front of customers and potential partners, you can evaluate your competition. If you’re new to the trade show scene, though, you might not realize just how complicated it can be.

There are challenges that extend far beyond the price you’ll pay for a booth. Indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of any trade show is the fact that you aren’t going to be allowed to do a lot of the work you want to do yourself. Labor unions maintain control of a variety of tasks for most exhibition venues; exhibitors must work with them in order to deliver the complete trade show experience. Here a few things you should know about working with labor unions in a large event space:

What Are Unions?

Labor unions are organized groups of skilled workers. Using their collective strength, members band together to negotiate the details of their working conditions with their employer. Unions exist for workers in nearly every type of industry. Some of the most well-known are the National Education Association (NEA) for teachers, the United Steelworkers (USW) for steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) for “1.4 million [workers] under 21 industrial divisions that include virtually every occupation imaginable.”

What Do They Have to Do with Trade Shows

Large convention centers need workers to help them manage the “installation and dismantle” (I&D) of the shows they host. It takes a lot of manpower to set up events and take them down in a safe and timely manner. Thus, most hire local labor unions to do the work for them. Typical labor union jobs include construction, electrical work, flooring, cleaning, decorating and rigging.

However, this list is not exhaustive, and different unions work in different venues doing different things. Some convention centers might use the services of local teamsters while another might use the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC) or The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Many will use multiple labor forces, making it paramount that, as an exhibitor, you know who you need to seek out for each task you need done.

Labor Union Rules Vary By State

Trade show labor rules vary by state and sometimes even by city and/or venue. Thus, as mentioned, you must familiarize yourself with the correct set of regulations for each trade show you attend, as well as each year that you attend it (even if it’s held in the same facility every time).

Labor rules constantly change, so understanding the guidelines one year doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll understand them the next. And it doesn’t save you any money to try to sneak and do a union job yourself. If caught, you will be forced to still pay the union its fee for the task, and the relationship between you and your labor force could sour, making it harder for you to get adequate help with the rest of work you need done. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that you don’t have to consult labor union policies if you’re going be exhibiting in a “right-to-work” state. Even unions in these states can hold some jurisdiction.

The Bottom Line

You’ve probably used qualitative and quantitative research design methods to study the market, designing a brand that you believe in and want to display. Don’t waste that time and money by neglecting to follow trade show rules. Ask for labor union guidelines before you plan your trade show exhibit so that you can adhere to union policy, building a booth that both attracts and engages conventioneers and laborers in all the right ways!

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