What exactly is an international freight forwarder, and why would I want to use one instead of booking my own exhibit transportation?
Simply put, a freight forwarder (aka a nonvessel operating carrier) organizes shipments on behalf of other people or firms in exchange for a fee. Forwarders book freight transport via a variety of vehicles and vessels, including ships, airplanes, trucks, and rail cars. Freight forwarders don't move anything themselves, but as experts in the logistics network, they arrange for shipments to get from point A to point B with as little hassle – and hopefully as little cost – as possible.
International freight forwarders are well versed in nondomestic transport and the oddities involved with importing and exporting. While they may enlist the help of a country-specific customs broker, the international freight forwarder is an expert in commercial invoices, customs documents, shippers' export declarations, bills of lading, and other documents required by the carrier or country of export, import, and/or transshipment.
A freight forwarder should not be confused with a freight broker, however. The main distinction is that the forwarder is responsible for the entire shipment while a broker is just responsible for organizing the transaction between you and a carrier. For the exhibit manager, that means that a forwarder will continue working with your shipment if something goes awry and will ensure it arrives at its destination or at the very least is returned to you. While some brokers will also do this for you, their job technically ends once the initial arrangements have been made. If something goes haywire, it's up to you to fix it.
So why would exhibitors hire an international freight forwarder rather than directly negotiating with various carriers to secure transport of their exhibitry? Well, if you want to ship your exhibit to Germany without using a freight forwarder, you would need to research the types of carriers required, obtain bids from various carriers to determine which best fit your needs, analyze country-specific regulations governing import and export, research show-related target dates and regulations, negotiate rates, complete documentation, track your shipment, and on and on. Not only does all of this work require a ton of time, but also one innocent slip-up can ruin your entire show experience – and perhaps your career.
Freight forwarders handle these details for you; plus, they can offer discounted, volume-based rates with carriers that most exhibit managers are unable to secure on their own. So in one fell swoop, a freight forwarder takes the show and shipment information you provide and then considers the commodity being shipped, the origin and destination guidelines, transit time required, budget, etc., and ultimately arranges, manages, and tracks your shipment. Your job is to provide initial documentation and then show up on the other end of the line to accept your freight.
That said, however, you need to ensure that your freight forwarder specializes in trade show shipping, not just general international shipments. For as you probably know, trade show transportation involves myriad variables specific to the industry, including everything from marshalling yards to value-added taxes (VAT).
As a general rule, a good international freight forwarder should perform the following tasks for you efficiently and cost effectively.
► Research your shows and verify the proper venue addresses, along with the move-in and move-out schedules.
► Analyze advance-warehouse options and deadlines to help you avoid costly late-arrival penalties.
► Consider contractor drayage rates to determine which delivery location is most economical and how best to package your shipment to ensure the lowest costs and drayage fees.
► Review your show schedule to determine if it's cheaper to ship your exhibit from show to show, to warehouse it somewhere in between, or to return it to its origin for storage.
► Complete all shipping documents and provide customs clearance.
► Demonstrate competency in the rules and regulations specific to each country to which you are shipping your goods and to each show in which you're exhibiting.
It's certainly possible for an exhibit manager to go it alone and to arrange all of his or her transportation independently, but as you can see, even the smallest of shipments have many layers of details that need attention. For shipments large or small, hiring a freight forwarder with trade show expertise will give you peace of mind and likely a successful show.
— Kelly Christy, president, TTS Logistics Inc., San Diego