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Trade Show Material Handling 101

Tradeshow Week did a survey not too long ago where exhibit mangers listed material handling as the most inflated trade show cost.  Material Handling – also called ‘Drayage’ is by far one of the most hidden and unexpectedly large costs associated with tradeshows.  Every exhibitor with a couple years of show experience under their belt has a horror story about frightening post-show handling charges from the show contractor.

Here are the basics of Drayage and how it all works.

What is Drayage and/or Material Handling?

Drayage is the service of handling freight shipments for a trade show. This service includes the following elements:

  • Receive shipment – unload, sort, inspect for damage, complete carriers documentation, create receiving report.
  • Warehouse and storage – tag freight, and inventory. Store until show Move-in.
  • Deliver to booth – load freight from warehouse, deliver to show site, place in booth.
  • Empty Containers – Store empty containers during show times.
  • Return Containers – redeliver empty containers to booth after show closes.
  • Load Freight – Move freight from empty booth space, load shipment on exhibitors designated carrier, complete carriers documentation.

Why do I need to use this service?
Convention centers and hotels do not have facilities, equipment, and manpower to receive and store exhibit freight.  Additionally these facilities have timely move in and move out schedules relating to the multiple events that occupy the same facility. Large shows are like entire cities that are setup in days and taken down in less.  That amount of structure takes a ton of logistics, even more labor and a lot f skilled workers with forklifts.  To ensure a smooth and effective flow of freight the Show Management hires a material handling contractor to coordinate, manage, and receive shipments relating to the show.

Why should I ship in advance?
In most cases, shipping to the Advance Warehouse is slightly more expensive than shipping direct to show site simply because you are paying for offsite storage. What benefits are you paying for by shipping advance?

  • Weather can always be a problem no matter what time of year you are shipping freight.  Many times a snow or ice storm can strand shipments for days.  Getting your shipment to the advance warehouse early ensures your booth and materials are waiting for you at show site and that surprise hurricane didn’t cost you thousands of extra freight dollars.
  • Sending your freight direct to show site can open up a logistical nightmare to your setup schedule.  Your freight arrives during the accepted delivery time, but it has to wait in line behind 40 other freight trucks for a spot at the loading dock.  This long wait can push the actual delivery time out hours where you are then paying for the truck drivers extra time, possibly pushing your shipment into overtime handling rates with the show contractor and maybe even delaying your exhibit installation labor into overtime as well depending on your show setup schedule.  Every small delay effects every piece of your exhibit puzzle – and every delay costs you money, I promise.

How am I charged for this service?
Drayage is charged by the weight of your inbound shipment. Exhibitors are charged for each cwt. or 100 lbs of their inbound shipment. All shipments are rounded up to the next 100 lbs, e.g. (366 lbs is 400 lbs or 4 cwt.) and often have a 200lb Minimum. Charges per hundred pounds vary across the US based on local conditions including but not limited to these factors: prevailing union wages, move-in/move-out times, and exhibit facility access.

Outbound Freight

Material Handling fees cover not only the incoming handling of your shipment, but also the logistics to get it on the truck to ship it back to you as well.  When your booth is all packed back up in its crates and pallets, they bring it to the loading dock and connect your freight company with your shipment, load it up and out for you. And no, they do not give you a credit if for not using outbound service.

What's Working In ExhibitingFocus on drayage as part of your trade show budget, and get help planning, with the What’s Working In Exhibiting white paper.  This 32-page guide is yours, free, by clicking here

About the Author

Heather Novak was an exhibiting consultant at Skyline North ( in Rochester, New York.

3 responses to “Trade Show Material Handling 101

  1. I had to look twice at the date on this posting, since Tradeshow Week went out of business in April 2010, so your quote does not reflect recent survey results.

    And the show’s advance warehouse storage may or not be in a physical warehouse under the control of the General Services Contractor. (Your freight may also be stored in the warehouse of the official common carrier.) As often as not, when your freight arrives at the advance warehouse, it will be offloaded at the end of the day it arrives onto cartage trailers (trailers so rickety that they are no longer legal for use on major highways) where it will remain out in the unsecured parking lot of the warehouse until the trailers are moved to show site. And the trailers are probably not locked, either, but when they have two, they may back their doors up facing each other. I’ve had damage from heat, cold and theft based on advance warehouse storage practices. Sometime read the fine print on the material handling liability statement; it’s usually $50 per item (i.e. crate or carton) or $1000 for the entire shipment for loss or damage. I’ll take my chances of using a specialized carrier who’ll be in line to unload me on my target date/time, and avoid the extra mis-handling of my freight to a phantom “warehouse”.

  2. Candy – As a true industry guru I know you are more than aware that Material Handling costs have been consistently rising and the major concern of exhibitors for at least the last 5 years or more. While Skyline just posted this as part of their tradeshow tips, I actually wrote it long ago for the newsletters I would send out to my exhibitors.

    Yes, you’re correct. In some instances, especially for very large shows that have enormous amounts of large island displays and heavy equipment the “Advanced Warehouse” turns out to be “Advanced Trailer” storage.

    While I agree that using a specialized carrier to deliver your freight is the best way to go, unless your freight is leaving one show and heading directly to another, there is going to be storage and downtime somewhere. Other than special climate controlled storage, most warehouses are just as susceptible to heat and cold damaged goods since I don’t know of a lot of companies that air condition 50,000+ sq. ft. of storage space.

    You also mentioned that you have experienced theft by shipping to the Advanced Warehouse. There is of course an obvious value to the contents of a booth shipment to the tradeshow manager and the company who could easily have paid tens of thousands of dollars for their display (or more). That value doesn’t translate well on the market for stolen goods as most thieves wouldn’t be interested in hocking modular conference rooms, custom carpet and fabric dyesub graphics. While yes, most exhibitors do ship some A/V with a booth, possibly including monitors or iPads etc. these items would be looking for a needle in a haystack in crates full of tradeshow booth infrastructure. From my experience, the majority of theft happens right on the show floor – not during shipment and storage.

  3. While I agree with some of what Candy has said, I think there are a few assumptions/ generalizations being made.

    When warehouse freight is loaded onto another trailer for storage after receipt, that trailer is going to be legally road worthy as it will be the same trailer used to take the freight to show site. No one in their right mind will spend the money on labor to unload a storage trailer just to reload it on another trailer for shipment to show site.

    I also dont’ know of any GC or freight company trapping freight for the GC who leave trailers unlocked. Having worked for several GCs before becoming a show manager, I can tell you the practice I witnessed over and over is that a given trailer will stay on the dock, against the building, until that trailer is full, and then it is locked and moved off of the dock until it is moved to show site. And many times the trailer is locked while on the dock as well.

    One item both Candy and the author have failed to mention is one of the biggest benefits of shipping to the warehouse and that being when you do, your freight will be in your booth waiting for you when exhibitor move in begins. This gives you the biggest window of time to set up your booth space. So while SOMETIMES it costs a few dollars more to ship to the warehouse it can certainly be well worth it in terms of the extra set up time gained. I emphasize sometimes as there are times when it is actually LESS expensive to ship to the warehouse; for example if the trade show facility has limited docks and no place to stage waiting trailers, or other attributes that make direct shipping undesirable.

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