Written By: Kelli Steckbauer MG Design Associates

Chicago’s exhibition history has been a long one. Starting with hosting The World’s Fair in 1893. Just two decades after the devastating Great Chicago Fire, the fair opened and showcased a vibrant and fully rebuilt city. In 1933 the fair was back in the Windy City drawing 1,500 conventions and 1.5 million visitors. In 1948 Chicago hosted a large railroad exhibition. After seeing the successful turnout, Colonel McCormick realized the need for a large exhibition center.

In 1955 the State of Illinois approved construction of a 360,000 square foot exhibition center. In 1959, construction was finally started and in 1960, McCormick Place opened its doors named after the Colonel. This positioned the City of Chicago as a destination leader for exhibitions. Today, at a total of 2,600,000 square feet, it is the largest convention center in North America.

After several successful decades, Chicago hit a wall. Chicago, a major union city, was increasingly seen as difficult to work in and expensive. Cities like Las Vegas and Orlando were able to capitalize on this marketing their warm weather and tourist attractions, as well as, slightly cheaper rates. The exhibition industry in Chicago was struggling to keep major exhibitions and business in the city.

In 2011, however, progress was made. The Mayor of Chicago and Union heads negotiations on new rules that benefited the show organizers, exhibitors, the city and the union began implementation. Both parties realized the importance of keeping Chicago a major exhibition destination and worked together on what Chicago’s current polices are.

So, what does this mean? Exhibitors were given more rights. In the past a union representative needed to do everything (they even needed an electrician to plug in a phone charger!). Now, exhibitors can build their own stand if they wish. They can hang their own graphics and plug in their own lights and AV.

What does that mean for stand builders? Not quite the same thing as the exhibitor. Stand builders still must use the unions to complete the same tasks. Only the exhibitor themselves have the right to do things on their own.

Below are a list of unions stand builders will likely interact with in Chicago:

  • Electrical– Electricians will install and dismantle anything electrical. Only exhibitors can now plug in any standard equipment and lighting.
  • Plumbers – Plumbers provide the installation and dismantling of water, air, and gas lines to the exhibit space and equipment.
  • Riggers – Riggers will uncrate/crate, unskid/skid your equipment/machinery and position it. They will also hang your signs.
  • Material Handlers/Teamsters – They bring your exhibit materials into and out of the building (except for machinery).
  • Carpenters – They will install and dismantle anything that is not electrical or plumbing.
  • Decorators – They will assemble/install non-electrical/non-structural hanging signs.

It’s important to read the exhibitor manual. Your manual will point out the rules for the city. All too often foreign exhibit houses bring their own labor into Chicago and try to build up the exhibit. You will get caught and it will only increase your costs. Union stewards walk the hall to ensure compliance of the rules and will issue fines for those not obeying the rules. It’s best if you hire a third party contractor ahead of time to ensure proper staffing. You’ll see deadlines in the manual for submitting the Exhibitor Appointed Contractor form.

When in doubt on a rule, it is best to contact the organizer, show contractor or local partner. The rules can be daunting even to the locals!

After your done with the job, stick around for a while and see all that Chicago has to offer. From its many museums, to Navy Pier and Architectural tours to the loads of shopping, Chicago has something for everyone. Bring a hungry belly too; the restaurants are amazing!