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Calling it Quits in
Five Easy Steps
How do you call it quits with your exhibit house? Exhibit-marketing pros weigh in with this five-step guide. Covering everything from prebreakup precautions to successfully shacking up with your new partner, this how-to handbook will help you and your program move out — and on. By Linda Armstrong
eil Sedaka had it right. Breaking up is hard to do. Initially there's the emotional and sometimes financial turmoil of simply making the decision to split. But then comes the entire "leaving" part, which often includes finding a new place to live and maybe even establishing custody of kids or pets. In fact, sometimes breaking up isn't just hard; it's hell.

And unfortunately, calling it quits with your exhibit house isn't much easier. Granted, the exhibit manager/exhibit-house relationship is professional rather than personal, and there likely aren't any homes, kids, or pets to divvy up. (And if there are, you've got bigger issues.) But there are myriad financial and legal factors to consider, and even if customer service has nosed over faster than Bill Cosby's reputation, you'll likely need approval from multiple internal stakeholders before you make a switch.

Plus, you can't just pack up your stuff in a huff and storm off to parts unknown. Before you hit the road, you must not only find a new exhibit house, but also secure necessary documentation, move your inventory, manage a million details, and refrain from going postal in the process. And the whole affair is particularly messy because, in most cases, the exhibit house is the equivalent of the booth's baby daddy, i.e., the booth builder and manager. As such its reps know the ins and outs of your property better than anyone, maybe including you. That means you'll have to locate scads of data so your next partner has the necessary information to manage your property successfully.

As if all of that's not bad enough, there's no instruction manual for ending an exhibiting affiliation. While there are countless self-help books for personal relationships gone awry, exhibit managers have to wing it like a lovesick teenager the first time around   until now. Based on the been-there-divorced-that advice of seven exhibit-marketing professionals, EXHIBITOR assembled the following five-step plan to guide you through Splitsville. Including everything from consequences you need to consider before you cut ties to the moment you wave "buh-bye," our experts' advice will lead you through the breakup process and onto greener pastures.

Consider the Consequences
If you're thinking about switching exhibit houses, more likely than not the company's service quality, which could include everything from the manner in which your properties are handled to communication issues with your account executive (AE), has worsened. Granted, there are other reasons to change firms   such as your company relocating across the country, a significant increase or decrease in the size of your exhibit-marketing program, severe budgetary constraints, and so on. But generally speaking, by the time you consider breaking ties, the level of service you're getting has started to erode, and you've probably addressed the issues multiple times with your AE and exhibit-house management. In essence, you've made a valiant effort, little has changed, and it's time to hit the road.

Before you pack your crates, you first need to consider your legal and financial options and obligations. "You must perform some reconnaissance before you breathe a word of your plans to your partner," says Lisa Gentilin, CMP, president of Fancy Shindigs Inc. "Enlist the help of your firm's legal team and examine your exhibit-house contract to determine what obligations you're under and what you can do at this point in the contract. For example, are any of your service contracts on automatic renewal, and will breaching contracts come with a financial penalty?"

Along these same lines, talk to your procurement department about any price discounts you may have received that are dependent on the amount of time you stay with the firm. "If you got a discount for a three-year service package, but you cut ties in year two, your exhibit house could ask for back payment on the full, nondiscounted price," Gentilin says. Ultimately, determine whether the exhibit house's past service issues outweigh any legal and financial ramifications or if it's best to postpone the breakup due to contractual issues.

Next, experts suggest that you notify key internal stakeholders of the possible split and gauge their responses. "Broach the subject with anyone you suspect might have veto power within your organization, and ask them if they would have qualms about switching exhibit houses if you could get better service at a similar price," Gentilin says. "If the switch is beneficial to the company, management will be on board 95 percent of the time. But you need to know if you're dealing with the 5 percent of situations that don't make business sense. For example, what if your company president is personal friends with the owner of your exhibit house? Ask a few questions internally to make sure you're not in a '5 percent' situation."

Doomsday Prepping
While breaking up isn't easy, here are three tactics to help grease the wheels if your
relationship hits the skids.

•  Extend the nondisclosure period. "When I sign a contract with an exhibit house, I make sure that its nondisclosure clause extends two to three years after our relationship ends," says exhibit-marketing consultant Susan Shuttleworth. "That way we can leave at any time, and reps can't leak info to competitors."

•  Create a database of historical costs. Lisa Gentilin, CMP, owner of Fancy Shindigs Inc., suggests that you track line items, and generate historical averages for each. "This practice will give you an average for each item, and it will make comparing new-vendor prices easier."

•  Keep everything. "Maintain copies of your inventory, designs, color schemes, etc.," Shuttleworth says. "If you leave your existing firm, you won't have to spend time tracking down all of this data for your new supplier – and you won't raise any red flags with your old one before you announce your intentions to leave."

Amass Information
Assuming financial and contractual constraints aren't a hurdle to your proposed split, it's time to gather critical information and get your ducks in a row with their little suitcases in hand. "Begin by requesting an up-to-date inventory from your exhibit house, including all exhibitry, graphics, light fixtures, tool kits, banner stands, and so on," says Liese Tamburrino, managing director of North America for Von Hagen GmbH. "Also ask the firm for a list of items that you rent on a regular basis so you're clear about what you'll have to lease elsewhere. And amass photographs of components and their corresponding shipping containers. Collect as much data as you can before the wheels come off the buggy and people get ornery."

"In the meantime, assemble critical details about each exhibit component," says Glenda Brungardt, CTSM, tradeshow/event marketing program manager for HP Printing and Personal System Group at Hewlett-Packard Co. "For example, what Pantone Matching System [PMS] color is your reception-desk laminate? What type of finish is on your header? Are there any pieces that are currently being refurbished, and if so, where is each piece at in this process? Which keys go to which locks? How should each component be packed into its crate? In what order are exhibit components installed, dismantled, and packed?" Your new partner will need all of this information to effectively manage and maintain your properties.

Obviously, your exhibit house might suspect something's amiss if you begin requesting reams of documentation. But your alibi can also function as a legitimate step toward increased efficiency. "Since you're already going through a comprehensive due-diligence process with regard to your inventory, this is also the perfect time to clean house," Gentilin says. "Go through your properties and discard any unnecessary items so you have an organized inventory ready to move to a new exhibit firm and so you don't end up paying someone to move your junk."

Tom Poalinelli, trade show specialist at USA Shade & Fabric Structures Inc., also recommends that you research ownership of designs, blueprints, photos, etc. "Obtain copies of all designs related to your booth, including those for the structure itself along with graphics, AV, lighting, sound, and so forth," he says. "Then ensure your company owns the rights to these designs. For example, if you don't own your lighting design, a new exhibit house can't legally recreate it off your plans."

Another essential element to gather is pricing history. "To compare prices at your current firm to those of a potential vendor, you need to know all of your charges, including everything from storage to graphics," Gentilin says. "Hopefully you've been tracking this all along and you'll merely need to gather your files. But if you don't have it at your fingertips, ask the exhibit house and your accounting team to dig up the data for you."

Also generate a list of vendors to which your exhibit house has subcontracted your work. "Even though you're divorcing your exhibit house, you may want to continue working with the laborers, lighting designers, and AV providers that are familiar with your exhibit," Brungardt says. "However, you've got to identify these people before you can send them a request for proposal [RFP]."

Finally, start eyeballing your calendar for a good time to call it quits. "Find out how much, if anything, you owe the exhibit house," Brungardt says. "Work with your accounting and procurement departments to gather data about payments made, upcoming scheduled payments, overdue bills, etc., and then determine if you can leave the firm at any time, or if it would be better, moneywise, to wait until specific bills are paid. Or perhaps there are various times during the year when your company has increased or limited cash flow and therefore periods when it would be easier to cut ties."

Also consider your show calendar as you plan for the breakup. "For example, you don't want to make the move right before your biggest show of the year or during a time period when you've got back-to-back shows for months on end," Tamburrino says. "So look for potential breakup dates when you'll have a decent amount of time to move your properties and get to know your new exhibit house before a critical show." Pat Friedlander, marketing consultant and owner of Chicago-based Word Up, suggests that it might be best to switch firms immediately after a major show. "If most of your properties are out at an event, it's probably cheaper to ship them to your new exhibit house afterward so you don't have pay to move your properties again later."

Find a New Home
While you complete step two, you can start on step three: securing a new exhibit house. This process isn't all that different from sending out RFPs as part of a new-build process. Granted, most exhibitors don't build a new booth just because service quality imploded at their previous exhibit house, so your vendor search probably won't include any mention of a new design. However, it'll involve similar questions regarding pricing, rental inventory, service quality, available services, locations, expertise, etc.

"Your RFP or vendor-selection process should also incorporate questions about the exact type of service-related issues that have just sent you packing," Tamburrino says. "You're looking for a firm with the positive offerings of your last exhibit house minus the pitfalls that drove you away. So ask the tough questions pertaining to service expectations at the start of the search rather than halfway through the vetting stage."

In terms of locating a new vendor, trade show industry shows and publications are certainly a good place to start. However, Poalinelli and Susan Shuttleworth, an exhibit-marketing consultant in McKinney, TX, suggest two additional avenues. "I like to look at recent award winners in EXHIBITOR magazine. Then I contact the exhibit managers of those programs and talk to them about their exhibit houses," Shuttleworth says. Poalinelli, however, peruses the trade show floor at some of his largest shows. "If I see a noncompeting exhibit I like or one that seems similar to ours in terms of size, scope, activities, etc., I seek out the exhibit manager and ask about his or her exhibit house," he says.

After you've identified a handful of firms with which you might want to build a future, compile all of the information you gathered and have a "Come-to-Jesus" meeting with internal stakeholders. "Make a clear case for why switching vendors is in the best interest of the company, and support your claims with documents, photos, receipts, invoices, service histories, and more," Poalinelli says. "Then point out the steps you've already taken to fix the problem (to no avail) and the research you've done to find a new firm. Show them cost comparisons, vendor-selection or RFP responses, and so forth. Finally, explain why any extra costs (such as moving charges, slightly higher exhibit-house fees, etc.) are worth every dime of investment. Management will see dollar signs, so you need to show stakeholders what you stand to lose in effectiveness, time, money, brand impact, and more if you stay with your old firm, and what you will gain, such as improved efficiencies, decreased labor hours, better brand presence, etc., if you switch."

Make it Work
Sometimes a breakup is inevitable. But what if you could alleviate the issues and prevent the
split in the first place? Here are four tips that might help you do just that.

•  Sound the alarm. "Don't let any issues fester," says Liese Tamburrino, managing director of North America for Von Hagen GmbH. "Discuss service quality with your account executive [AE] early and often. After all, your exhibit house can't solve any problems if it's not aware of them."

•  Communicate strategically. Susan Shuttleworth, an exhibit-marketing consultant in McKinney, TX, takes a strategic approach to communication. "Draft a letter that documents your concerns and show it to your AE. Tell him or her that you'll be sending it to management if the issues aren't resolved quickly. That way, not only will your AE know you're dead serious, but also it'll demonstrate that you really don't want to get him or her in trouble ?" yet. It puts the two of you on the same path and hopefully headed for a quick, quiet resolution."

•  Look inward. "Take an honest look at the situation and ask yourself, 'Is it them, or is it us?'" says Tom Poalinelli, trade show specialist at USA Shade & Fabric Structures Inc. "I'm not suggesting that there's something wrong with your performance; I'm talking about your company's expectations and processes. For instance, perhaps the exhibit house can't deliver what you're requesting because your company simply isn't willing to spend the money needed to get the job done correctly. Or maybe your firm's internal approval process drags down forward progress so much that an exhibit house can't meet show deadlines. If your company is the source of the problems, switching to a new firm won't solve them."

•  Assess expectations. "Some people want Rolls-Royce service on a Hyundai budget, and they're shocked if an exhibit house can't deliver," Tamburrino says. "Exhibit-house service is just like anything else: You get what you pay for. So talk to your peers in the industry and research other firm's offerings to make sure that your expectations are in line with your budget."

Break the News
As long as your internal stakeholders approve of your breakup, your next step is to draft a sort of legal-separation letter. "Inform your exhibit house of your intentions to leave, and clearly outline your obligations as well as what you expect from the firm," Brungardt says. "Your legal team can advise you about what you should and shouldn't include in this letter. But generally speaking it should cover effective dates, payment schedules, associated fees, move-out dates, etc."

"You also might want to broach some of the stickier subjects," Gentilin says. "For example, if something is damaged during the move to your new firm, who's going to pay for it? And will there be a labor charge from the old firm for prepping your move-out shipment? You may need to inquire about this prior to drafting your letter, but it's always better to have something in writing before you make a move."

Friedlander suggests that your letter focus on the future as opposed to the past. "Don't reiterate your reasons for leaving," she says. "Management should already be well aware of the issues, so don't dump salt on the wound; plus, doing so could cause you legal issues down the road. Just stick to the basics: We're leaving, you'll get your check on this date, we'll transport our stuff on this date, and that's it."

Several sources recommend that you also include an attachment to the letter that lists your inventory and asks the exhibit house to sign off on it. "Make sure you are on the same page in terms of what's yours, right down to the office supplies kept with your booth and every crate or shipping container," Gentilin says. "Also note any properties that are at shows and where they should be shipped (that is, back to the old firm or on to the new one). After your move, you can compare the inventory list to what arrived at your new vendor."

Move Out — and On
When moving day finally arrives, you still need to manage the move and ensure that everything goes smoothly for your old exhibit house and your new one. Some experts hand off this task to a transportation company. "You could hire a reputable transportation company, inform it of the situation, and task reps with ensuring everything on the inventory list is accounted for and delivered to the new firm," says Judy Volker, marketing director at Iatric Systems Inc. Meanwhile, others take a more direct approach. "I make sure either I or someone on my team is there for the duration of the move-out process," Gentilin says. "Even the cost of a flight and hotel stay is well worth it to ensure that everything on my inventory list is accounted for and packed properly for transit. Plus, if anything is improperly handled during the move, I can deal with it right then   as opposed to having to remedy the situation after the fact."

Friedlander also prefers the on-site approach, but she brings a little muscle. "Have someone from your new exhibit house oversee the move-out process with you," she says. "OK, so you'll ruffle some feathers. But this way your AE can see how things are packed and ask questions about properties, installation, shipping, etc. It's a great way to introduce your AE to your properties and start the getting-to-know-you process."

Finally, Shuttleworth suggests contacting your new firm to alert reps that the shipment is on its way and to inform them of any discrepancies between the inventory provided and what's on the truck. Upon receipt of your shipment, a rep should check each inventory item off the list and assess it for damages.

As you can see, breaking up with your exhibit house isn't as easy as throwing a fit and hitting the road. But if you follow the preceding steps and our experts' advice, you should be able to terminate your relationship without dissolving your sanity along with it.

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