‘Never Again In Chicago,’ Angry Nexpo Vendors Plead

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By: Jim Rosenberg and Mark Fitzgerald

Angry Big Iron vendors at this year’s Nexpo equipment show are giving Chicago two thumbs down — way down.

Quipp Systems Inc. Marketing Manager Leticia Gostita said the show was the worst of the six Nexpos she has installed for the packaging-equipment maker. Jose Carmenate, interviewed at the same time at the Quipp booth Monday, proclaimed it the worst for set-up and costs in the 22 years he’s been coming to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) event.

Across the aisle, GMA, another big post-press company that brought a working machine to Chicago, echoed those views. Helyn Mack, who oversaw installation of the gripper conveyor that has been running continuously eight hours a day during the show, said the company “definitely” does not want the show to return here in 2010, as it is tentatively scheduled to be.

“We don’t feel we could afford it,” Mack said.

Big machine vendors and others told E&P that the cost of exhibiting — which they had been warned would be more expensive than Nexpo’s many shows in the South and Nevada — was far higher than they anticipated, the union work rules were more onerous than they expected, and individual shop stewards and foremen on the floor were rude and intimidating.

“I was extorted,” one vendor said privately. “I was told, you know, crates can break, and what am I going to do if I’ve got a bunch of broken crates? How do I get [the exhibit] back [to headquarters]?”

A few vendors insisted on anonymity, saying they did not want to risk antagonizing union workers who were still needed to break down and properly pack up the exhibits when Nexpo closes Tuesday afternoon.

One, asked flatly if his company had been “held up for cash” by union workers, blanched when his boss responded, “In a word, yes.” He later pleaded with E&P not to identify the company. “You know what you have to do, you don’t have to ask,” he added.

Quipp’s Gostisa, a member of NAA’s Nexpo Strategic Advisory Committee, said she did not experience similar suggestions for cash from workers.

“Some other people told they did get asked,” she said. “I paid no money, but they were very rude.”

Under the work rules at McCormick Place, exhibitors in big spaces such as Quipp’s cannot put up their own exhibits. That means, these Big Iron vendors say, that their own crews must stand by while inexperienced workers try to put together the complex newspaper production equipment.

“Aluminum bends, and these guys are hammering away at it,” Gostisa said. She said she was afraid the conveyor might be bent out of alignment. Installation on one machine was so slow that it is not being operated on the show floor, as was initially planned, said Quipp’s Carmenate.

One vendor reported agreeing to overtime for the union crew so that its own crew could complete the installation. Another said it sent its workers in to furiously install parts while the union workers took breaks.

Gostisa echoed another complaint: While NAA warned of the union’s work rules for installation, those rules changed according to the whim of whatever work crew showed up. Ironically, Chicago has touted the changes in union rules implemented two years ago at McCormick to allow smaller exhibitors to set up their own booths.

But repeatedly, vendors talked about their employees being ordered off ladders, and having tools yanked from their hands by union workers when they tried to do something on their own.

NAA Senior Vice President Reggie Hall said vendors may come to realize that the advantages of Chicago’s location, and the newspaper attendees it would attract, would more than compensate for the dramatically higher costs of installation.

“Clearly, nobody likes to deal with a cost situation like this,” he said. “But we’re not going to know until it’s all over if the pluses outweigh the minuses.”

He said attendance by Monday afternoon had already exceeded last year’s Nexpo in Dallas, with roughly 2,700 to 2,800 attendees, not including exhibitors.

One reason for the sticker shock, added Kevin McCourt, NAA’s vice president for advertising and exhibition sales, is that Nexpo went from one of the nation’s cheapest venues, in Dallas, to one of its most expensive.

Hall noted that no commitments have been made for Chicago in 2010, though McCormick Place is holding the date for NAA. “Clearly we have vendors who are not happy now,” he said. If that unhappiness persists post-show, Hall added, “Certainly, we’re not going to bring Nexpo to a place our customers don’t want to go.”

Not everyone was unhappy with their installation experiences, and nearly all vendors interviewed were at pains to say that NAA and the exhibition managing company had been helpful. At Kodak, which had a large exhibition space, though little equipment, “everything went very smooth,” said Xara Gobhai, trade shows and events team lead for Kodak’s Graphic Communications Group.

“We had excellent support from our show agent company,” said Gobhai, who was managing her first Nexpo.

For some vendors, Chicago’s reputation preceded it — and so they staged a purposely scaled-down exhibit.

GSA, the press equipment re-sellers, for instance, frequently partner with Quipp at Nexpo to show machines in operations. GSA isn’t doing that this time around because of the cost, President Jens Ljungberg said. The company also exhibits at the GraphExpo and Print commercial printing industry shows held on alternating years in Chicago, he said: “We knew what to expect, it just isn’t worth it.”

For long-time Kansa Technology LLC executive Ron Swint this Nexpo was like a trip down Bad Memory Lane. “I remember when we were in Chicago in 1968, and everybody said, ‘never again’ — and here we are back in Chicago again.”

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