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fixing snafus

ILLUSTRATION: REGAN DUNNICK

Damage Control

Exhibit managers are notorious for preparing for the worst-case scenario at trade shows. And when you work in the office at an exhibit-design firm, protecting your clients from potential disaster is second nature. But when a water pipe burst at our corporate offices last March, I was not only worried about shielding my clients from the snafu, I was wading, knee deep, in my own worst-case scenario.

When I'd left work on Friday, I knew I'd have a busy week ahead of me. I had a client flying in from New York to preview his exhibit, and a second client, CV Therapeutics, was coming to preview two exhibits for the same show by the end of the week, so we could ship them in time for the company's March 29 show.

Over the weekend, however, my busy week got a lot busier when a water main that fed the sprinkler system for our office - which also has a built-in showroom and storage facility - burst, filling the 30,000-square-foot property with 8 inches of water.

My first clue of trouble came when I drove into our back parking lot Monday morning to find the entire parking lot flooded. It turned out someone who arrived a bit earlier had opened the back door to be greeted by a flood of water that had yet to subside.

My first thought was, "Oh my gosh, we lost everything." My second thought was, "Oh my gosh, who am I previewing this week, and how am I going to pull it off?"
We waited until the building was deemed safe to enter, then we walked in to assess the damage. The first problem was that we had no phones or computers.

Everyone's desktop computers were completely drenched, and not a single computer in the building remained functional. And since the phone systems plugged in below the waterline, our phones were out, too. Finally, any paper files stored in bottom drawers were destroyed by the deluge.

It turned out that my client who was coming from New York hadn't left yet, and that was a good thing since his brand-new graphics had been ruined in the flood. So I told him to cancel his trip, and said a quiet little prayer that his would be the only preview I'd need to cancel as a result of the disaster. But I knew I had another one coming up in a matter of days, and I had no idea how I could possibly be ready in time.

The only good news was that our computer servers had been on racks above the water line, so any electronic files that had been backed up on the server would eventually be saved.

Before we all went home, my boss said he wanted to give us a goal. Other than the clients who we'd had to turn back that day, no project would be late or over budget due to this flood. While that sounded nice and optimistic, I wondered how we'd pull it off. After all, I had no phone numbers, no computers, ruined paper files, and lost work on my desktop. Oh, and I had a client due for a preview by the end of the week.

Our first task was to let all our clients know that we'd had a problem - without causing an all-out panic. I tried to look on the bright side. The flood wasn't our fault, so as long as we continued to deliver, this could show our ability to handle any adversity as efficiently and effectively as humanly possible.

Luckily, the company's remote e-mail system still worked, so I went home, logged on to my computer there, and e-mailed my clients about the situation. I informed them that we planned to make sure they would experience no delays on our part. From my remote e-mail system, I was also able to gather some phone numbers to make personal phone calls on all of my critical cases.

While most clients were apprehensive, they were also extremely sympathetic. After all, these were exhibit managers. They knew all about disasters. The only calls I hated to make were to the clients whose booths we stored inside of our corporate showroom. These booths needed to be completely replaced, and while it cost them nothing more than the time to fill out insurance paperwork, making those calls was an unenviable task. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, and filing claims and completing paperwork isn't anybody's idea of a good time.

With the initial calls and e-mails done, I focused on getting everything ready for my first post-flood client preview: CV Therapeutics. With so much information lost, I needed to verify with CV's event manager where the booth was to be sent, and make sure the exhibit and custom-printed graphics would be ready in time for the preview. Since I still couldn't access certain information, I knew the exhibit would need a little extra attention so nothing was missed before it was due to ship.

Like many of my clients, CV sympathized with my predicament, but it also trusted me to deliver the exhibit, and I didn't want to betray that trust.

As the week progressed, I continued to work from home, not knowing what details I was missing since I had lost so many paper files as well as some electronic documents on my desktop. I knew I'd eventually have access to the server to pull information from there, but when I did have that access, it'd be a race against the clock to check off all the items for the exhibit and get it out the door on time.

On Thursday, we all got rental laptops so we could finally access our server files. Once into the server, I pulled up everything I had on CV and started a checklist to make sure I had all the items it needed for the exhibit. The best news was that its custom graphics had been above the water line, so we did not need to recreate them.

The next day, the company brought in trailers for us to work from. It wasn't ideal, but it did enable us to work together, access the server, and have a place where we could finish clients' projects, which was what I needed to do for CV. I was able to get enough done in time to still offer the company's event manager the option of coming in to preview the exhibit, but she respectfully declined.

By the end of the day Friday, I had all the components of the booth pulled together, packed, and ready to ship on Monday. When CV received the exhibit in Chicago for the American College of Cardiology show, the event manager informed me that had I not told her about the flood, she'd have never known such a catastrophe took place.

In all, I had more than 20 clients whose projects were affected by the flood in one way or another, but delivering in time to CV gave me the confidence to handle them all. It was as if finishing that first project washed all my troubles away.

- Tina Stanton, customer service manager, Professional Exhibits & Graphics Inc., Sunnyvale, CA

TELL US A STORY

Send your Plan B exhibiting experiences to Cynthya Porter, cporter@exhibitormagazine.com.

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