|By Kathy Bergen, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Dec. 1, 2006 - --Strike up a conversation with a longtime McCormick Place exhibitor, and it is likely they will recall a bad memory of working with the trade unions to set up or dismantle their booths.
Entrepreneur Bill Coxwell remembers being required to hire a tradesman for simple setup work, then having the man just sit in the booth because it was easier to do the work himself.
Dave Metzler, an executive with electronics giant Philips, recalls a time when, "If you wanted something done, you practically had to beg."
And Carolyn Elson, trade show manager for Hologic Inc., can tell you about workers dragging their feet and padded billing statements.
But these exhibitors at the just-concluded convention of the Radiological Society of North America, and others, now say they have noticed a dramatic shift in worker attitude and performance that has the potential to win over big shows that otherwise might reject Chicago.
A series of initiatives aimed at making McCormick Place more customer friendly--labor union pacts with more-flexible work rules, customer-service training for workers and a mediation structure for handling exhibitor complaints--appear to be reducing costs and, perhaps more important, cutting down aggravation.
"I'm very impressed with the hustle these guys put in, and the quality they put in," said exhibitor Ben Turner, vice president of sales and marketing for ETS Lindgren, a maker of scanner shields that was an exhibitor at the convention. "I wish I could've said that in years past."
"There has been a huge change," said Pam Cumming, a marketing executive with Hologic, which sells equipment for mammography and bone-density assessments. "People are hustling. They want to work for you. They recognize you are the employer, and they want you to come back next year."
That's not to say Chicago can rest easy.
More of the nation's trade-show business has gravitated to sunny Las Vegas and Orlando. And many exhibitors find Chicago to be expensive, and not just at McCormick Place. In terms of lodging and restaurant meals, Chicago is the third-costliest city for business travelers this year, behind New York and Washington, according to Runzheimer International.
So far, only two of the five major unions, the riggers and the decorators, have eased work rules, and exhibitors would like the others to follow suit. As well, some large exhibitors would like some of the do-it-yourself flexibility that has been accorded the little booths.
"Chicago will be a lot better off when the negative reputation it has for how difficult it is to work in this building goes away," said Steve Drew, assistant executive director of the Radiological Society of North America, which came very close to moving its 2003 convention to Orlando.
"The city and McCormick Place have worked closely with us, and labor has continued to try to improve things here, and for the foreseeable future we'll be in Chicago," Drew said. The group is committed through 2011.
The convention, with more than 62,000 attendees, was the city's fifth largest this year and was expected to generate an estimated $116 million in direct spending. Those statistics, however, only hint at the show's importance.
It comes at a time of year when the convention business typically slows and brings crowds to Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend, a key shopping time. Many make it into a family outing.
Cincinnati radiologist and lecturer Dr. Stephen Pomeranz and his wife, Penny, have brought their six children to the city every year for 24 years. They stay at the Four Seasons, visit the museums, shop on Michigan Avenue and eat at such restaurants as Bistro 110 and Topolobampo.
"Two of our children are in college here now; it's like home for them," said Pomeranz.
And three more may end up at college here too.
"It's all due to their experience staying here," he said.
Erecting the radiologist association show "is like setting up the largest hospital in the shortest amount of time," said Robert Fulton, chief steward for Riggers Union Local 136 at McCormick Place, the union responsible for setting up booths, putting together steel structures and moving machinery.
In the week before the show, between 750 and 1,000 tradespeople transform 7 million pounds of equipment and display materials into a smoothly humming, high-tech marketplace with 521,000 square feet of exhibits.
To ease the process and the costs for customers, Fulton's union made a number of concessions this past summer, most significantly agreeing to two-man crews for most jobs, down from three-man crews. It was the first union to do so.
"I can tell you, it works just as well, if not better," Elson, of Hologic, said during setup, the sounds of hammers, grinders and planers in the background.
The radiologists' society estimated the concessions shaved $300,000 from exhibitors' costs, not a huge sum given that the bigger exhibitors will spend millions of dollars on their displays.
To many exhibitors, the big difference was the new attitude.
"It's not like we're the enemy anymore," said Metzler, an events manager for Philips. "Now we're not just a paycheck."
Or as longtime exhibitor Pomeranz put it, "It's just the attitude that they want to help when they can, as fast as they can. It's a dramatic change."
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune
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