Playing Catch-Up, Chicago Loosens Labor Regs

Chicago — The Windy City's convention business, sagging from increasing competition from Orlando and Las Vegas, may see its fortunes improve under new changes in local labor rules designed to enhance the exhibitor experience and save money.

Officials of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place and Navy Pier, said the new arrangements, announced this month, will ease several trade show processes.

Straight-time wage hours are being expanded. In the past, straight time was paid for eight hours of work beginning at 8 a.m. Now, straight time can begin at 6, 7 or 8 a.m. With staggered crews, exhibitors could gain up to four more hours of labor paid at the straight-time rate.

Customers have new rights to do their own work without having to call in union labor, including hanging up simple signs and hooking up regular 110-volt electrical connections. Previously, this was limited to booths of 300 square feet or less.

The size of crews will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Rather than requiring a minimum three-man crew on a forklift or in-booth work, for example, the job may have only one worker if the situation allows.

A new low-cost employee position was created for in-booth audiovisual installation, replacing a higher-cost journeyman electrician. "This one change, based on last year's work, could save Supercomm at least $20,000," said MPEA spokesman Billy Weinberg, referring to the big telecommunications show scheduled at McCormick Place June 6-9.

The National Restaurant Association, anticipating about 78,000 attendees and 560,000 square feet of exhibits for its May 21-24 show at McCormick Place, had been rumored to be considering a move away from Chicago, possibly to Las Vegas.

Mary Pat Heftman, the group's senior vice president, convention, said this month's show under the newly relaxed labor rules would serve as a "pilot" to determine the show's future in Chicago.

"It's all a positive start, and we're optimistic for what will develop," she said. "We are discussing possibly deeper modifications with different trades. For example, we have had very positive meetings with the riggers, who are very energetic."

Improving Chicago's appeal to exhibitors is seen as critical. According to Tradeshow Week magazine, the city hosted only 18 of the nation's 200 largest trade shows in 2004, while Las Vegas hosted 38.

Of those 18 shows, McCormick Place — the nation's largest convention center, at 2.2 million square feet — handled 16, its poorest showing since 1989. The 680,149 attendees those shows attracted represented the second-lowest number since 1994, when the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau began tracking large-show attendance. Only terror-impaired 2001 had fewer attendees.

The MPEA also hopes to do better with the 2008 opening of the $850 million West Building. According to the MPEA, 24 shows have already been booked into the building.