GES exec provides glimpse into world of trade show production

Trade shows and conventions make up an industry worth more than $8 billion annually to the Las Vegas economy, and GES Exposition Services is one of the biggest players in the industry.

Locally, the company has about 700 employees and hires thousands more to work on shows it produces at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo Center, Mandalay Bay Convention Center and other venues.

At the helm for GES in Las Vegas is Kevin Rabbitt.

Rabbitt joined the company in 2002 and became president and CEO on Jan. 1, 2006.

Recently he talked about producing major shows such as the International Consumer Electronics Show, Men’s Apparel Guild in California, the World Shoe Association Show and the ConExpo-Con/Agg show. Combined, those shows drew more than 400,000 people to Las Vegas since January.

Question: Is producing a big event like the International Consumer Electronics Show stressful?

Answer: We don’t really find that it is stressful because it is something we do across the world 3,000 times a year.

But if you look at it from an outside perspective, there are a lot of logistics to it, a lot of moving parts.

A big show, like the International CES, we’ll start planning that show instantly, the day that the previous show ended.

Question: How do you plan a big show such as CES, which involves more than 200 managers and 2,000 to 3,000 workers?

Answer: Think about a trade show as a master-planned neighborhood. Consumer Electronics Association (owners of CES) is the developer and we are the general contractor. We will mark the floor out and say this is where everything is going to be. This is where every booth is going to be. This is where every aisle is going to be. Then we will start building on top of that. We will hang the directional signs from the ceiling, we will move the freight in the convention center so exhibitors have that when they get there. We’ll hook up the power. And then we will start building exhibits. If you think about each exhibit being a house in a master-planned community, after each house is pretty much completed we will finish the common areas. The common areas will be the roads in a master-planned community. Generally, that process will last three to five days, the show will be open three to four days. Then we’ll take it down and move the inventory to another show or move it into our warehouse in about half the time we took to move it in.

We are constantly moving in and out of shows throughout the world.

Question: Could you describe the extensive role a show contractor such as GES plays in a big event?

Answer: The (show owner) purchases space from the convention center, then they re-sell that space to exhibitors. They hire us to do three sets of services. One is all the common area work, work we are doing directly for them. Second is work the exhibitors must use us for, exclusive services. Those traditionally are two different things, movement of freight in and out of the convention center and power distribution.

Think about the logistics behind that and why it is important to have one provider. If you move the freight into the convention center in the wrong order you could landlock yourself. If you moved in all of the freight that was around the dock doors first, you wouldn’t be able to get around that freight to get in the freight that needs to go in the middle and front of the hall. So there is a very structured pattern.

The third set of services we offer exhibitors is what we call discretionary services. Examples of that would be furnishings — carpet, tables, chairs that they can rent from us on a show.

They can rent or purchase an exhibit from us that we will custom-fabricate and design. Another is transportation services, moving their goods from one city to the show and back. Those are all things we compete with other contractors on.

Question: Where is the greatest growth potential in Las Vegas?

Answer: Most likely the growth is going to be coming in the form of corporate events, user conferences and proprietary events.

There has been a big trend of the industry there. Conference rooms that are coming on line in Vegas are set up to handle that as well.

Question: What external factors threaten the convention industry?

Answer: The trade show industry mirrors the economy. All the segments of the economy have trade shows and conventions that match up. That is certainly a concern that could slow growth or could drive it in the opposite direction. Rising costs. Wages continue to increase, costs of petroleum-based products continue to increase. A lot of the things we provide for trade shows are petroleum-based. When you add all that together it creates a larger and larger cost each year for people to participate in a trade show. Finding ways to lower those costs or keep those costs at bay is critical. It allows us to focus on the other end of the equation and those are the positive things.

Question: What is GES doing to control costs?

Answer: We have always reused our carpet at least five times and instead of putting it in a landfill we use it for community centers and homes, and places where it has an end use. Now we have carpet that is made of … up to 50 percent recyclable content to start and is 100 percent recyclable afterward. It provides some cost savings as well.

On the labor side we continue to work very, very diligently with our union partners on driving productivity as well as driving service levels. Not redoing work reduces costs and reducing costs allows us to keep our price increases reasonable on an annual basis.

Question: Can exhibitors put together their own booths?

Answer: They can certainly design and build their own booths if they have those capabilities. They can certainly hire someone else to do it. But when installing the booth, whether in Las Vegas or anywhere in the United States, there are union jurisdiction rules. Certain trades are required to do certain kinds of work. Electricians have jurisdiction over any power distribution.

They have the skills to take bulk power and bring it down to usable units so something can be plugged into it without damaging the goods or injuring anybody.

The Teamsters have jurisdiction for movement of freight in and out of the convention center as well as installation of exhibits and installations of furnishings. Then … stagehands (union) has jurisdiction over hanging things in the ceiling. They have specialized skill in understanding what the load factor and safety requirements are to effectively hang something.

Question: Is it just Las Vegas or is the industry across the country heavily unionized?

Answer: Across the U.S. and Canada it is a unionized industry. There are more than 100 collective bargaining agreements that we negotiate and sign. The scope of work is different for different trades in different cities.

Question: Is Las Vegas considered more or less restrictive regarding union work rules?

Answer: Generally it would be considered in the middle. Think about the traditional heavy union environment, think about where unions are very large and a substantial portion of the economy, it is usually on the East Coast — Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit — those kinds of areas. Those are the areas that have more traditional, some more stringent work rules. Then think about places that have a whole lot less unions outside of trade shows. They would be the Phoenixes of the world and the Salt Lakes of the world. They are a little more open. But in the same band. It is a relatively narrow band. It is not like in Salt Lake City anything goes and in Chicago you can’t do anything.

Question: Does the union association affect the industry’s viability in these communities?

Answer: The trades play a big role in customer service. So we look at our trades as our partners. If you are thinking of ramping up and down a work force you have got to have the skills needed to do that and the mechanism to do that. If there weren’t a union hall it would be up to each individual contractor to build up their own work force and have their own ability to ramp up and ramp down. It can be done, that’s how it works in the U.K. We work with our union partners on customer service and safety training. Because in the end, when an exhibitor leaves Las Vegas, whether they were touched by a union employee, a GES employee, a (show) employee, by a taxicab driver, by a hotel employee, that all comprises their thoughts on their experience in Las Vegas.

Question: What makes a trade show experience good for your customers?

Answer: One is technology. There is a whole host of technologies users experience from a trade show perspective. Some of the technologies surround how to order services. We also invest in how to improve logistics. Think about shipping a package. If someone ships a package through us, when we receive it an exhibitor can dial in to an 800 number and find out the status of their package.

The second big area of investment has been around customer service. No one comes to a trade show to watch us flawlessly deliver carpet.

They are there to hook up buyers and sellers. We can make the ordering process easier if we can flawlessly execute what we are doing so they don’t have to worry about that. That drives high service levels.

The third area of our investment is around educating exhibitors on how to increase their return on investment. That is a really large opportunity for the overall industry. Helping exhibitors define what their goals are for a trade show and how to measure that is not as easy as it sounds.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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