Trade Show Perspective

Trade Show Perspectives: Avoiding the Exhibit-Shipping Blues

You have designed and constructed a beautiful trade show exhibit, and you either printed, or had printed, the graphics that present your customers’ desired messages. Your customer has reviewed and approved the exhibit and is very pleased, giving you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Now it’s time to ship the exhibit. At this point those inexperienced in this area may experience some uncertainty. However, with a little know-how, you can avoid getting the exhibit-shipping blues.

The molded shipping cases shown are two of the smallest cases available for portable displays. A 10’ pop-up system will fit within the two cases.

ATA Cases

If the exhibit you created is a portable exhibit, it most likely will ship in one or two molded shipping cases with wheels. If the exhibit is a modular component exhibit it may ship in multiple molded cases or possibly a wooden crate. If the exhibit is a traditionally constructed custom exhibit, it will probably ship in either wooden crates or possibly ATA cases.

In case you are not familiar with ATA cases, they conform with specifications from the Airline Transportation Association (ATA) and are constructed from laminated wood with metal corners, butterfly twist latches, aluminum edging, and often include casters.

Pack with Care

In order to protect your newly constructed exhibit, it will need to be packed very carefully. It seems that no matter how hard you may try to protect an exhibit for shipping, damage does happen occasionally. You cannot possibly think of every scenario that may happen during shipping. The possibilities are limitless.

A worst-case scenario happened to us a number of years ago. We had a customer who had two different trade shows happening both at the same time in Las Vegas, in different venues. They were using a 20' x 20' island exhibit at both shows, and each exhibit was different.

We carefully labeled each crate for each specific show. In order to save shipping costs, both exhibits were shipped at the same time, by the same carrier.

I traveled to Las Vegas to supervise the setup of each exhibit. Unfortunately, the shipments got mixed and parts of each exhibit ended up at both venues. I identified this mix-up immediately and contacted the shipper, and they certainly agreed to solve this problem.

When the carrier delivered the correct crates to the first location, as the driver opened the back doors of his truck, there were our two missing crates…upside down, with the “UP” arrows pointing down and the skids up in the air!

My customer was standing beside me and his comments cannot be printed in this magazine. Fortunately, we had packed the crates very carefully, and to our amazement, nothing was damaged.

Glass: Do Not Break

Another time, one of our customers had included a custom glass waterfall into the design of their exhibit. We built a custom crate with a floating floor and double-paneled walls. On the crate we had clearly marked, “Please Handle With Care… Glass… Do Not Break.”

The show went off without a hitch, but when the crate came back from the show, it looked like someone had performed a dance on the front of the crate with greasy boots. In addition, someone had added under our note, “Glass… Do Not Break” the words “Yes it does!” with a permanent marker. The glass waterfall was all in pieces.

This photo shows a number of loose items shrink wrapped onto a pallet. This is a very effective way to ship last minute or over-flow items to a show.

Fortunately, my customer did have insurance for the waterfall, and it was replaced. But speaking of insurance, be sure that you and your customers understand the limits of shipping insurance.

Shipping Insurance Limits

Unless the owner of the exhibit has specific coverage for the exhibit, the shipping company is only liable for a very small amount of money per hundred pounds of freight. When I say a small amount, I am referring to approximately $50 per hundred pounds. Consequently, an exhibit that is worth thousands of dollars may only be insured by the shipper for a few hundred dollars. Be sure that your customer is aware of this and that they insure the exhibit for its true value.

Shipping a Pop-Up

When shipping a pop-up display, be sure you roll your graphic or fabric panels with the image or fabric to the outside. This prevents the graphics or fabric panel from curling away from the bottom of the magnetic struts (channel bars). Also, it’s wise to roll each panel individually and place it into the shipping case. This makes it much easier to remove the panel from the shipping case at the show site.


If possible, when shipping a modular exhibit, construct compartments or custom partitions into your shipping case or crate so it is easy to locate the various components at the show. This will aid the installer and save time (and money) when setting up the exhibit.

Felt crate liner is an ideal packing material to help prevent damage to panels and walls for modular and custom exhibits. Display Supply and Lighting ( is a vendor that offers five different widths of felt rolls.

Make your customers’ crates stand apart from all the other crates. Paint the crates in an unusual manner or specific color so that the crates can be easily identified, should they get lost either during handling, while being transported, or possibly on the show floor.

Shrink Wrapped Pallets

If it is necessary to send a number of loose items or boxes to a show, always place them onto a separate pallet and shrink-wrap them together. This not only helps prevent all the loose items from getting lost, but it saves you a lot of money since the show charges a handling fee for each item or box. In other words, your customer is only charged one handling fee (for the pallet), instead of multiple fees for multiple items.

This holds true for shipping multiple molded cases as well. Stack several of them onto a pallet and shrink-wrap them together. This allows the freight-handling people to use a forklift to move them. This saves them handling, and consequently, will save you money.

No Substitute for Experience

Shipping with a freight company that understands and has experience with the exhibition industry is very important. There are many details in getting the freight to and into a convention center and you don’t want to provide on-the-job-training. A carrier that has a good relationship with the unions at various locations is also a plus.

If possible, get the driver’s cell phone number so you can verify that the shipment has arrived in the show city. Most large shows have the freight carriers check into a location—called the marshaling yard—to get a “place-in-line.” When their number is called, they can drive to the convention center and get their freight unloaded. This system helps eliminate congestion at the convention centers. Knowing the driver’s cell phone number will help you track the shipment through this process.

Also, be aware, that when a carrier is sitting in a marshaling yard, they generally are charging a set fee for waiting time. At times, this waiting time fee can add up to quite a sum of money.

I once had a customer who had a show in Houston during the Houston Grand Prix automobile race. Unbelievably, the racetrack actually ran right around the convention center, so all the freight carriers had to wait for breaks in the practice sessions in order to get into the convention center to unload. The waiting time fee was in the many hundreds of dollars, and my customer was not too happy…I don’t think she was a racing fan to begin with!

The Trade Show Experience

So in review, the shipping of an exhibit is just another component of the trade show experience. I am often amazed how a person may need to send one small box to a convention center. During the set up there are many trucks being unloaded with tons of freight, lifts hanging signs from the ceilings, forklifts going every which way within the convention center, hundreds of exhibits being installed, people hanging from ladders, crates and boxes filling most every aisle, and your one box somehow makes it to your booth space.

The exhibition industry truly is a remarkable industry.