Just imagine everything above into and out of a venue in just a few days

If exhibiting at a tradeshow or exhibition, it’s important to understand all the behind-the-scenes aspects of the exhibition that can affect your booth, your products, and your bottom line. One of the most important components is called material handling. It is often the most criticized aspect of exhibiting in the U.S. and the source of more complaints than anything else.

The origins of material handling
Material handling is broadly defined as the transportation of items over a short distance for various reasons. In the broader shipping industry, this may be part of a larger logistical process. It can be useful for trade shows that rely on many different materials getting to the show floor.

Material handling is also known as drayage in common vernacular and is the system used for almost all tradeshows and exhibitions across the U.S. and increasingly Canada. As large general contractors from the U.S. have expanded to other countries, particularly in Europe, they are making a concerted effort to use it there as well.
Material Handling in America
Here, in the American exhibition industry, the practice arose out of the need to streamline the transfer of a large quantity of material from a large number of trucks onto show floors at venues, that were often in the middle of a city with a very limited number of dock bays that create a major logistical bottleneck. Further, because the U.S. is such a large country, materials are often required to move thousands of miles to arrive on time for a particular exhibition and are packed on pallets or in crates that must be unloaded by forklift and then carried to the booth space.

A need naturally arose for a single entity to coordinate the arrival and unloading of these trucks. It was only natural that the same entity would then coordinate the storage of those empty crates and skids during the show, the return of those items to the booth after the show, and then coordinate the loading of those filled crates and skids onto their respective trucks after the show. The logical choice for such an entity was the show general contractor who is usually responsible for a variety of other basic show services.

Drayage, therefore, serves a very necessary and useful function for which one would think everyone would be grateful. Why then, is it so heavily criticized? The reason stems from two main factors – the lack of freedom and the pricing system.
General contractors
The requirements of who you get to complete your material handling needs are different in nearly every country. For example, in Europe, stand-builders and exhibitors are generally free to make arrangements in several different ways. One OPTION is to pay the general contractor a fee for their services. That fee is usually based on the volume of material unloaded or several pallets/crates. Storage fees will also depend on the volume of items stored. However, due to the sprawling nature of most venues in Europe, it’s often possible to unload lighter items by hand or to utilize a truck with a lift-gate and pallet jack to unload yourself. Overall, one would likely call it a very efficient and logical system.

The requirements though are very different here in America. In the ‘land of the free’, you have zero freedom when it comes to material handling. You are required to use the general contractor. This monopoly on the service means the general contractor can charge pretty much whatever they want, and those charges can often be more than what it cost to ship the item thousands of miles to the show. While it makes sense that those charges might vary depending on the city, what raises complaints about the whole system is that charges can vary from show to show even at the same venue.

Furthermore, the price isn’t based on how many crates or skids were unloaded or trips made by the forklift, but instead is based on weight. For many, it’s hard to understand how a single pallet that weighs 2000lbs costs twice as much as a 1000lb pallet of the same size. And finally, the quality of this pricey service often leaves much to be desired. Forklift drivers protected by union contracts often zip up and down aisles with expensive and delicate freight at speeds that make one cringe.

In all fairness to the general contractors, they will explain that the reality of tradeshows in the U.S. is that material handling is the only way they can make a profit. Show organizers expect a lot of the services and items provided by the general contractor to be complimentary. Exhibitors and stand builders expect the general contractor to have a variety of furniture and other items readily available for ordering onsite “just in case” they need it. There is a significant cost to provide all of that and hence material handling is in effect paying for far more than just material handling.

How to cut back on costs
Take control of what you can, while you can, to save yourself some money in the long run. Here are some of our best tips and tricks to keep in mind when it comes to material handling:
  • Lose the loose boxes: The “price by weight” is actually for anything that can be transported by forklift. If you send loose boxes, you’ll get hit with a fee PER BOX and there are often minimum charges of hundreds of dollars. Unless it’s just 1 or 2 boxes, you’ll often save by making sure you ship it all on a pallet.
  • Watch out for deadlines: Almost every show will have a cut-off date for shipments to the show’s advance warehouse AND a target date/time for onsite deliveries. If you miss either you’ll get hit with surcharges or “off-target” rates that can cost you thousands.
  • Lose Weight: You won’t be weighed, but your freight will. A booth that utilized lighter materials and construction can save you a lot of money in material handling charges. Consider re-thinking what you’re shipping to. Do you really need to ship those catalogs?
  • Experience is everything: Find a freight forwarder who has experience with tradeshows in the country you’re going to – especially if it’s the U.S. This way, you can be sure that no additional costs are tacked on due to an error on when, how, or where they deliver and they can accurately anticipate or quote things like “wait charges”so you don’t have surprises after the show. 
  • Handlers to avoid: Some of the biggest common carriers that deliver daily to our offices or homes may not be the best option for your professional exhibition needs because they are not used to handling these kinds of materials or following the rules and processes those shows have.
Partnering with a professional
While this may all seem somewhat overwhelming, some professionals are well versed in this area. Teams like JTB already have tried and true industry connections that are reliable.

In Europe, powered hand trucks are a popular way to move freight around venues.

To learn more about how to get started and to make sure that your material handling needs are taken care of correctly, reach out to JTB today.