Our shipping manager received a call from the transportation company that included the one word that nobody in our industry wants to hear: fire.
Despite all the planning, hard work, and best efforts of talented people, sometimes things still go wrong. After all, in a business as complex and demanding as the exhibition industry, where thousands of details have to come together perfectly for every show, the unforeseen is bound to happen. Most recently, things went wrong for my company and our client on a Thursday morning in January.
My firm, Mirror Show Management, was managing a program for a new client, and on this fateful Thursday, its new property was en route from our upstate New York offices, through Pennsylvania, and to a trade show at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The show was set to open Sunday, and the shipment was on a brand-new truck operated by one of our most trusted shipping partners. With several ace on-site supervisors in the field, we were staying on top of things from our home office.
On that Thursday morning, as the office staff associated with the project arrived to work as usual, they naturally assumed we'd soon receive confirmation that the truck bearing the shipment had been unloaded at Javits. Early that morning, however, our shipping manager received a call from the transportation company that included the one word that nobody in our industry wants to hear: fire.
Our shipping manager quickly called the team together to relay the news. Apparently, somewhere near the outskirts of Valley Forge, PA, the brakes on the truck carrying the shipment had overheated. It wasn't long before the tires caught fire, which ultimately spread to most of the trailer.
Incredibly, the main trailer doors had been soldered shut by the extreme heat, keeping the transportation company from evaluating the contents. Nevertheless, the rep sent us pictures of the exterior, so we had some idea of the extent of the damage and what exhibit elements might have taken the biggest hit based on their location within the scorched trailer.
Plus, we knew that the truck was carrying several graphic panels, carpet, cabinets, monitors, and the exhibit's focal point: a large fabric sign, all of which were highly vulnerable to damage from smoke, water, and fire. Based on this, we knew that almost everything in the truck would have some type of smoke damage, and more likely than not, most of the graphics had melted or at least been severely warped.
Thus, we figured we had to get started replacing many if not all of these items. But after we received the photos, communication from our transportation reps paused as they worked to sort everything out. We tried to remain patient for about four hours, hoping to get a full list of what was torched beyond repair, what might be salvaged, and what – if anything – was undamaged. During this time, we notified our client but assured her that we would get her booth rebuilt before the show opened.
Even though we had no more information by noon, we decided it was go time – ready or not. So we gathered the team and created a list of everything we were certain had been damaged based on the photos, along with a list of things we couldn't yet see that most likely had been affected. Next, the team began reprinting all the graphics and ordered a new hanging sign. While we figured out which original items might still be salvageable, given the setup and production time involved, we couldn't risk it. We had to get started on replacements.
And it was a good thing we did. Reps finally managed to extract the properties from the truck, haul them to a warehouse, unpack everything, and send us photos of what remained. The graphics had indeed melted, and the carpet was toast. Most of the cabinets and monitors seemed to be intact, albeit covered in a thick coat of soot. The sign looked like it had been packed really well, and as such, it might not have been damaged. But we decided to create a new one just in case. In addition to sending the pictures, the rep informed us that these components were now on a new truck making its way to Javits.
While our in-house team completed work on the graphics and sign, we contacted our supervisor at Javits to secure new carpet for the booth. Everyone worked through the night to get everything completed and on another truck headed to Javits in the wee morning hours of Friday. Now it was up to our on-site staff. Thankfully, they didn't disappoint.
By 9 a.m., the new carpet was installed, and shortly thereafter, the graphics and sign arrived. Luckily, all of the salvaged properties rolled in via the new truck around midday. And lo and behold, the sign was still viable. As expected, everything – panels, cabinets, monitors, even the power strips – was covered with fine black soot. If you touched anything, you picked up grime and transferred it to other surfaces. And, of course, the exhibitry reeked like burnt toast.
The on-site crew knew that they were going to need some serious supplies to "de-soot" and deodorize the booth. So off they ran to a nearby home-improvement store to get gallons of lacquer thinner, which would act like a degreaser for the soot, plus countless bottles of Febreze and boxes of baking soda to address the smoke odor. Starting at about noon and working all through the night on Friday, the team meticulously cleaned and polished every square inch of the booth and completed the installation by 2 p.m. Saturday.
Once the show opened the next day and everything seemed to be going as planned, crew members turned their attention to getting the property back home again. Most of the crates and cases were either melted or completely covered in ashy residue, rendering them unusable. So they decided to pad wrap and skid wrap everything, and they simply ordered the appropriate materials through the shipping company, which was more than happy to oblige. In fact, the shipping firm was a godsend throughout the process and continues to be our trusted partner to this day.
When all was said and done, the booth looked exactly as the client expected, and there was enough insurance coverage to mitigate the cost of the damage. Nobody, including
attendees with a super "sniffer," so to speak, could detect a hint of the trouble that nearly derailed us. The solution was so effective, in fact, that the client doubled its booth size for the show's next iteration. However, we're all hoping for an easier outing the next time around and betting that like lightning, massive truck fires don't strike twice in the same place.
— Bill Quetschenbach, senior account executive, Mirror Show Management, Webster, NY