Navigating Trade Show Labor: A US City Guide

trade show labor us city guide

“The labor union was not originated by man,” said Mother Jones in 1912. “The labor movement, my friends, was a command from God Almighty.” Labor unions are a critical part of the experiential marketing business in the US and essential to any successful trade show. It’s a true team effort. But if it seems like you need divine intervention to help you navigate the different trade show labor laws, cultures, and unspoken norms of various cities, Mother Jones might have been onto something.

The expectations and costs for trade show labor vary wildly, but there are some regional trends that can help you plan ahead. Certain venues and cities are notorious for ever-changing rules and regulations, surprising charges for food and drink, or frequent shipping strikes that stop deliveries in their tracks. Some of these reputations are well earned, others are vestiges of earlier times or are simply overblown. In any case, as a show manager, you need to know what to expect so you can budget your time and money appropriately.

While there’s no hard-and-fast matrix for exhibiting labor costs, and trade show labor laws and local regulations don’t sit still, we compiled a handy guide for the major American exhibition cities. The wild seas of labor law may be rough and unpredictable, but we hope this helps you steer your ship safely into harbor.

Las Vegas

“Las Vegas has been the top conference city for the past 24 years,” says Julie Gustafson, Group Delphi’s VP of Customer Experience, an industry veteran who has run trade show and events programs across the US. “They can handle more concurrent trade show work than any other place in the country.” For our purposes, let’s consider it to be the baseline for costs, as it runs almost neutral compared to other cities. In terms of trade show labor laws, it’s important to know that Nevada is a right-to-work state, but install and dismantle labor is run by the Teamsters Union. Further, AV and electrical in Vegas has steadily increased in cost over the past few years. “Electricians want more share of installation and more union shadow requirements for non-union AV installers,” says Gustafson.

San Francisco

“San Francisco is a +30% to 50% percent city,” says Gustafson. “Trade show labor is more expensive here.” Most work is at the Moscone Center, which just went through a major renovation. Find a trusted labor partner with the most reliable, highest quality labor, and use someone outside the venue. “You should also estimate that in addition to costing more in general, it will take longer,” says Gustafson. “I always add a 15%-time buffer to labor on top of my actual hour assumption.”

Los Angeles and Southern California

“LA has great labor,” says Gustafson. “In fact, it is hard to get bad labor in Southern California. They have a strong, able, smart group of union contractors and it is a pleasure to exhibit there.” Further, Gustafson estimates SoCal to be slightly more expensive than Las Vegas by 20%. From the quality of work, it can be an excellent deal.

Dallas

“Dallas has high quality labor if you look in the right places,” says Gustafson. “It’s another city where a strong labor partnership can net you fabulous labor resources.” It’s also less expensive than a city like Las Vegas. Material handling, cleaning, electrical—across the board, costs are 5% to 15% less than Vegas. It’s a conservative reduction to budget with. “I once had a 16-person labor call manned entirely by firefighters,” says Gustafson. “You will get smart, able, resourceful people—and strong!”

New Orleans

On the upside, New Orleans is a lower cost city than Las Vegas. Budget 5% to 15% less, conservatively. Speed is the challenge in New Orleans. “Crates come and go less quickly, breaks may last longer, and so on,” says Gustafson. “Things move slower here, and you will see it. Plan on more labor hours than you would normally schedule for a similar build. I would buffer in 15% additional time.”

Orlando

Orlando offers lower costs than Las Vegas as well, typically by 5% to 15%. “The city also has good trade show labor, although, again, it means finding a solid partnership with a labor vendor who provides consistent lead men,” says Gustafson. The city does get a good amount of trade shows, but your experience can suffer at busier times when the labor pool is stretched thin.

Chicago

The Windy City is a big draw for many exhibitors and show organizers, but it also has its fair share of challenges. “Chicago is an expensive and occasionally frustrating place to do business,” says Gustafson. “We had two sizable shows there a week apart in two different halls of McCormick Place. The foremen in each hall interpreted the rules differently.” But stay positive. When the rules get complicated, you should ask a lot of questions and shake a lot of hands. “I have never seen arguing with a foreman work out well and strongly urge against it,” says Gustafson.

On the upside, the carpenter labor in Chicago is among the best in the country. The downside is that they are limited in what they can do on the floor by the electricians and decorator unions.

New York

New York shows need an all-out Zen approach. “New York is an expensive and almost always frustrating place to do business,” says Gustafson. “There are many different unions in New York. I had one show where I ended up with labor from four different unions, in many cases overlapping to do the same work one carpenter can do in most cities.” If you are over water, like much of Manhattan on the piers, it may be longshoremen. If you are moving properties, you have to account for a fork driver plus an expo, or someone to walk with the load to make sure it doesn’t run into anything.

In the end, Gustafson urges a high budget. “Whatever your cost expectations are for New York, you should double it.”

And when all else fails? Smart marketers allocate an additional 20–50% for show service contingencies regardless of city. Unions are a key protector of laborers and a necessary partner. It’s a two-way street: they have expectations of you just as you have expectations of them. When you know exactly what to expect, it makes a smoother show for all involved.

Also be sure to see our guide to the top trade show venues in these US cities.

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