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Chicago stays in Pack Expo plans

Despite other show relocations and big new facilities near Orlando, FL, Pack Expo's sponsor tells Packaging World that it expects improvements andwill keep the show at McCormick Place.
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For more than a year serious complaints about McCormick Place have cast a cloud over Chicago's reputation as the country's premier convention and trade show city. Some large meetings have already announced moves to other locations and more groups are threatening to move out of McCormick Place. So Packaging World talked with Chuck Yuska president of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (Arlington VA) regarding its concerns about McCormick Place and Chicago as a location for future Pack Expos. Yuska candidly admits there are some conditions his association would like to see changed but he expresses confidence that Chicago and/or the state of Illinois will begin to respond to problems with work rules costs and what many see as hotel price gouging. The dissatisfaction of meeting organizers first turned to action when the state of Illinois (among others) failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment some years ago. Some groups voted to boycott locations in states that hadn't passed the ERA. About eight years ago the unions providing workers at McCormick Place made some concessions. Just two years ago Chicago's agency that manages McCormick Place completed a $675 million expansion to make its 2.2 million sq' space the largest in the western hemisphere. Despite the improvements some major meetings and trade shows including the North American Radiological Society and the Intl. Marine Trades Expo are abandoning McCormick Place at least for next year. Other majors including the Housewares Show and the Food Marketing Institute's Supermarket Show are grumbling very publicly. Much like the twin towers in Kuala Lumpur have eclipsed Chicago's Sears Tower as the world's tallest building two exposition centers in the Orlando area will dwarf McCormick Place if it doesn't expand. The Orange County Convention Center has expansion plans to triple its floor space to 3 million sq' the same size projected for the privately-owned World Expo Center that's due to open in Orlando in two years. And it's precisely these convention centers that have attracted shows away from McCormick Place. Problems to address As PW went to press Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that he expected to have a plan within "a few weeks" that will make McCormick Place more cost-competitive with other locations. Beginning in January the exposition authority will assume half the cost of the buses that shuttle attendees between downtown hotels and the show site. PMMI's Yuska has participated in some advisory groups on changes at McCormick Place. "These groups are not only trying to work with the McCormick Place labor unions but also with the entire hospitality industry in Chicago. Yes" he states "there are problems." These problems are really a combination of work rules at McCormick Place and hotel practices. Unlike some groups that have relocated or made threats to move Yuska doesn't really lay the blame on worker costs. "When you compare the costs at McCormick Place to facilities in other unionized cities there's relatively little difference" he says. In fact with two Pack Expo West shows under its belt PMMI reports some costs in Las Vegas are probably higher than in Chicago. The difference though is that the unions in Las Vegas are more accommodating. "In Las Vegas the exhibition labor is pleasant to work with and they're flexible. There's very little flexibility by the unions in Chicago. The rates are comparable but it's really the service and attitude that's different." Smaller exhibitors complain The regular exhibitors at Pack Expo Yuska says seldom seriously complain. Most of the criticism comes from small exhibitors especially first-timers. "Most of our exhibitors are pretty sophisticated according to the exhibition contractors. They're professional and know what to expect. In fact some of these companies know the labor groups at McCormick Place better than we do because they may exhibit there several times each year" he says. When Yuska talks about work rules he's referring to the large number of unions that Pack Expo exhibitors must deal with. "Right now we have to deal with riggers carpenters electricians plumbers teamsters and decorators" he says. Several show sponsors including PMMI are hoping that a new plan will reduce the number of unions that are required to move and set up exhibits. Yuska heartily answers "Hell yes!" when asked if he'd like to see more flexibility in these work rules. "We'd like to see some of these rules change like permitting smaller exhibitors to do more work themselves" he stresses. "That's what often creates the hassles when a small exhibitor hears someone yell 'Hey you can't put that sign up!' So many of the work rules become annoyances that people remember." The average Pack Expo attendee however most feels the cost squeeze at the hotel check-out counter. Hotel rates prime target "One of our problems is getting enough rooms for our attendees at reasonable rates" Yuska points out. Many hotels are enjoying high occupancy rates now and they refuse to commit large numbers of rooms to be filled through PMMI's housing bureau. "Many tell us they'll only commit fifty or sixty percent of their rooms to us at the convention rate. Later the balance of their rooms will go to the highest bidder" he says. For attendees who make late plans to visit Pack Expo room rates can be way out of line. "During our show they'll easily fill up every night and they can often get double the convention rate when rooms are scarce. That's why some people end up paying $300 to $400 per night." This is one of the main reasons the housewares exposition is threatening to move Yuska says. "The hotels wouldn't give them any breaks in January. Are the hotels saying that January in Chicago is time for prime hotel rates?" he asks. Perhaps because of past experiences Pack Expo attendees this year have reserved more room nights than ever before. Yuska reports that in 1998 Pack Expo's housing company has already assigned 80 room nights as of early August. "Two years ago the total we handled was just 56 room nights. So either our housing group is doing a better job or more people are using our service than ever before because of the tight market." In addition some disgruntled groups cite taxes on hotel rooms as a problem. The tax on hotel rooms in Chicago is 14.9% nearly 50% higher than the national average of just over 10%. Still sold on Chicago As bad as the picture looks Yuska says PMMI is still committed to Chicago for the foreseeable future. And he believes that attendees of meetings that have shifted to other locations especially Orlando may regret the change. "The labor force in Orlando really has no experience in dealing with a heavy equipment show like Pack Expo" he says. "They're simply not equipped for our kind of show." And while Yuska is unhappy with hotel rates in Chicago he imagines what the situation would be like in Orlando with business professionals competing with vacationers. Further he says traffic in Orlando is already congested even without major meetings or trade shows. A successful exhibition needs more than just the trade show. "It's also the environment good hotels good transportation entertainment and cultural events shopping and nice restaurants. That is what Chicago offers-and what's not yet developed in Orlando. "Many meetings not only draw the professional members but also their wives. In the past some of these people came to Chicago and enjoyed the fine restaurants and the excellent shopping. In Orlando are these professional people going to enjoy eating at the Mickey Mouse Club for dinner? The grand new entrance to McCormick Place is shown (above) along with PMMI president Chuck Yuska (top).

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