Tradeshow and Exhibit Thoughtleaders
"The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge
 and the dissemination of truth."

John F. Kennedy

Meet our Thoughtleaders: An Interview with
Brett Lipeles on his Career and Recent Wedding
by Gordon Nary

Return to Brett's Webpage
Thoughtleaders Main Page

Gordon:    What is your professional background?

Brett:        I was a corporate trade show program manager in the Fortune 1000 market for eight years, and then became a partner at an exhibit builder for the next five years.  Being a customer of the trade show industry, and then part of a supplier within the industry was an eye-opener.  I started my own company, Exhibit & Display Consultants (EDC), in 2002, because I knew that we could provide a higher level of service, reduce client’s workload and reduce customer’s expenses considerably.

As an aside, I grew up in a home with a full fine wood working and machine shop in the basement.  My father is an avid tool collector and worked on everything from cars to collectibles and I was by his side from four to eighteen years old.  That experience allows me to dissect the operations that go along with display installation and dismantle, anticipate and prepare for challenges and communicate well with all of the different contractors that you encounter at the shows: riggers, plumbers, electricians, teamsters and carpenters.

In addition to regularly saving our clientele 30% of their exhibit cost of ownership and running costs, I have authored more than thirty articles for various trade publications, including Exhibit City, Exhibit Builder and Exhibitor.  I also wrote the Professional Trade Show Exhibit Manager’s Handbook in 2006.  This is the definitive guide for planning and coordinating the logistics and operations involved with running a medium or large trade show exhibit. I wrote this because there simply was no such resource available to exhibitors.  All of these articles and the Exhibit Manager’s Handbook are designed to speed up the learning curve for any exhibit manager and help them manage their exhibit better and save money while doing so.

Gordon:    A 30% exhibitor cost reduction is a powerful statistic - especially if this is a common savings for many of your clients.  Can you provides some insights and examples on how you are able to effect such significant savings?

Brett:        If an exhibit is 20 x 20 or larger then chances are very good that the exhibitor is working with an exhibit builder or exhibit house to manage it.  In that case, typically the exhibit house does all of the pre-show planning, submits the necessary paperwork, and sends a project supervisor to the show to supervise exhibit installation and exhibit dismantle.   There are two big problems with this industry “norm”: 

1)   Exhibit Houses often do not have the infrastructure in place to manage your exhibit the way that you would if you had their knowledge, in other words, efficiently.  This costs you a lot of extra marketing dollars. Here are a few examples: 

While working for a Fortune 100 client, we recently observed one of the most respected exhibit builders in the US shipping 50% extra freight to a show for a 20 x 30 foot exhibit.  Freight handling costs soar from $15K to $22.5K.  The whole project budget is $30K so 25% of the total project budget is wasted.  We have an ex shop foreman from this exhibit builder on one of our installation and dismantle crews, and he confirmed that this is a common occurrence for this exhibit builder.

Another well-known national brand that we exhibit near is hanging twenty discs from separate hang points on the ceiling.  If you have ever observed a sign being hung at a trade show, you know that it is a slow process.  That process typically costs $1500 to $2000 by the time the sign is installed and dismantled.  They are paying for twenty  of these processes, when they could be hanging all of the discs in the same locations from an inexpensive company owned, truss system.  This would lower their costs by $15k to $20K at every show!

I attended a presentation at the 2014 Red Diamond Congress given by a trade show director for a large medical company.  They recently replaced their booth.  When the new booth was shipped to the first couple of trade shows on their schedule, the company was assessed special handling fees for the freight in two of the trailers that the booth was moved in.  Special handling fees are typically a fine of 50% of the freight handling fee per truck.  In this case, the company was billed an extra $100,000 for the two trucks.  Note: These special handling fines are not new.  The two major general contractors have been using these same rules to assess special handling rates for eight or more years.  The director of this company is blaming the general contractor for assessing the fees, but those rules are clearly stated in the exhibitor services manual, along with pictures illustrating the cases considered special handling.  She is right to think that there is no safety or additional time needed to unload her trucks so the fine shouldn’t be assessed.  However, her exhibit house is to blame.  In every other business, the exhibit builder would be blamed for negligence.  In this case, negligence that cost their client a lot of marketing dollars.  

Crating can often be a significant cost center.  Chances are that for many exhibitors crates are all different sizes.  However, the trucks that move these crates are the same size – 53’ L x 99” W x 105” T.  You pay for the amount of length you take up in this space, so you want all or most of your crates to fill this space as efficiently as possible.  However, that is not how most exhibit builders think when they build your crates.

In short, cost reduction begins with how your exhibit is built and packed, but at almost every exhibit builder there is a distinct gap between the group that designs the exhibit, the carpenters that build the exhibit and the personnel that manages exhibit installation and dismantle at the various trade shows that you attend. 

Gordon:   What other variables make this process inefficient? 

Brett:       There is very little communication within the exhibit house between the personnel who runs the exhibit and the personnel that completes the pre-show planning.  Often times, the exhibit is run by a number of different personnel depending on availability. 

In addition, the show paperwork, contracts for shipping, labor, electrical, plumbing and rigging services are usually prepared by a staff member that has no on site trade show experience, and is simply processing this paperwork by copying previous projects with the same size and layout.  However, the time schedule, rules and straight time vs overtime vary at each show.  For a person to schedule the services required for install and dismantle, all of these changing project conditions must be anticipated to maximize return on investment.  

Also, field project supervisors often do not have the resources to communicate previous project challenges, suggest procedural improvements and verify that at the next show, the process is changed.  However that is not the biggest problem that you as a customer and exhibitor faces.   

Gordon:   What is the biggest challenge the exhibitor may face when their exhibit house is running the exhibit?

Brett:        About 99% of the time, the contract between an exhibitor and their exhibit house is a cost plus contract.  In a cost plus contract, you pay some amount of mark-up on all of the services provided at the show.  These services are contracted for by the exhibit house. Unfortunately, cost plus discourages the exhibit house from investing any time to run the project properly.  In fact, the company actually profits from a poorly planned and executed project.  Just as I asked the attendees at my presentation at the 2014 Red Diamond Congress, “How many of you increase your bonus by coming in over-time and over-budget?”  

Essentially, the trade show industry is based on a contract arrangement that leads to poor project performance and increased customer cost.  Our findings indicate that this inefficiency increases exhibitor costs by 30% - 50% at every show where their medium to large exhibits are used. 

At Exhibit and Display Consultants, we implemented an infrastructure which eliminates all of this inefficiency beginning with the exhibit design and construction process.  We use our skills and knowledge to complete trade show projects exactly as our customers would if they had our skills and knowledge.  Whether we are designing, building, managing or supervising the installation or dismantle of your exhibit at a trade show, we spend your money like it is our own!  And we keep our eye on the cost of exhibit ownership.  Our goal is not just to get the job done, but to get the project done with a focus on efficiency and cost control.

Gordon:  You were on the faculty at the 2014 Red Diamond Congress .What was your topic?

Brett:      The presentation was titled “How to reduce your trade show expenses by 30% or more.”  I covered many of the topics from my book.  I also highlighted some observations from recent assignments and covered some exhibit design related cost saving trends such as how to reduce exhibit weight without huge changes to marketing impact, how to reduce rigging and electrical costs, how to reduce shipping costs, how to eliminate pack and prep costs and why and how to work with the general contractor and trade show management for the greatest benefit.

There are many variables, and there are many innovative ways to reduce costs.  They all take much more pre-show planning than is usually invested, but the results, such as project predictability and cost control, justify the means.  If you already own an exhibit, and you are serious about increasing ROI, a good place to start is to personally observe the entire installation and dismantle process “notepad in hand.”  This process is going to take four or five days in addition to show attendance, but there is a lot of potential for observations that will create future cost savings.  Once you document the inefficiencies taking place and discuss them with your current exhibit house, changes to the planning, installation and dismantle process can be implemented.  Any resulting cost savings will apply to every future show.   

Special Note: If you choose to do this observing yourself, do not tell your exhibit house.  You want to observe a “typical” installation, not a specially prepared for event.

Gordon:    You were recently married, so congratulations are in order.  I have to ask, who organized the wedding?

Brett:        My wife and I decided to do all of the event coordination ourselves.  We actually had the wedding on a ship while sailing around Lake Winnipesaukee in NH. Since it was a destination wedding, we also rented a catering hall and hired a band for a 5 hour after party.  We wanted to make sure that the guests had a full itinerary during our wedding weekend.

Gordon:    How was organizing your wedding similar to the trade show work you do every day? 

Brett:         Actually, we planned for and ran the “projects” the same way.  The location of the wedding was a destination for us too.  We created timelines and started ordering the various supplies months before the actual project.  We had to, because we ordered some of the supplies directly from China in order to cut costs. 

We did the graphic design and typesetting for the save the date and the invitations ourselves.  My wife did the calligraphy and the printing was completed by some of my regular suppliers.

My wife is a professional cook and pastry shelf, and we worked with other family members for much of the week prior to the wedding to hand make 750 pastries.  While we didn’t have to worry about freight handling, we did have to plan the movement of all of the pastries, place cards, homemade centerpieces, and guest favors to, onto and from the ship.  Everything had to be hand carried, so weight was an extremely relevant consideration

Once my wife had added fresh crème to the Napoleons, we spent the rest of the day Friday making the interior of catering hall look like a beautifully decorated and softly lit tent with the help of half a dozen family and friends.  We had only part of one day to complete set-up of a 30’ x 95’ room, so the time pressure was very similar to a trade show. 

Overall, we were really happy with the results.  We came in on time and on budget.  Most of the plan worked, and where it didn’t, we improvised effectively.  Our guests had a great time, and we provided a unique, unforgettable experience for all who attended!  In short, our goals were virtually the same as any exhibitor’s, and we succeeded in achieving these goals with aplomb.


Gordon: Thank you for a great interview. We should schedule another one after your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.


Gordon Nary is Editor of Tradeshow and Exhibit Thoughtleaders Journal