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Trade Show Training: What is Material Handling?

In order for a trade show to be successful as a whole, it must run like a well-oiled machine; the show planners, aware of this necessity, spend months meticulously scheduling critical dates, deadlines, services, and other show needs. Knowing the ins and outs of trade show management and terminology is a quality possessed by the greatest of exhibitors – consequently, rookie companies are overshadowed by their powerhouse competitors as they are lost in the confusion of the machine’s parts, so to speak. While many aspects of exhibiting can be learned simply from experience, there are others that should be known beforehand through trade show training in order to avoid headaches and frustration during the show.


What is material handling?

Material handling commonly referred to as drayage, is the cost of moving your shipments from the truck to the warehouse or show floor. It is a fee from the show planners, NOT the truck driver – therefore, if the exhibitor refuses to pay the fee, their shipments will essentially sit untouched on the asphalt in the parking lot. For this reason, material handling costs are non-negotiable.


Why are trade show drayage costs often a surprise to the exhibitor?

Because the show contractors are the ones charging the exhibitor, material handling is often addressed deep in the thick show information packet. Understandably, information regarding drayage is often overlooked, especially by the rookies on the show floor. Nevertheless, it is information provided directly to the exhibitor, and it is neither the responsibility nor the fault of any other third party (labor, shipping, or an exhibit house) if drayage costs are a “surprise” fee to the exhibitor. Additionally, drayage costs are a “given” for those who exhibit regularly – another reason why knowing the terminology of expos is imperative.


 Why is trade show material handling so expensive?!

Sure, a surprise fee can be frustrating no matter what, but it is typically manageable at a relatively low cost. Unfortunately, drayage can grow to be just the opposite, costing exhibitors hundreds, even thousands of dollars that are unaccounted for in their show budget. It can be a real blow to the company, and often times discourages repeat exhibitors. The expensive costs incurred by the exhibitor are used by the general show contractor for labor, forklifts/moving equipment, and maintenance of the equipment before, during and after the show. There are several reasons why material handling fees can quickly add up to cost a fortune:

  • Material handling forms were not submitted by the deadline and the exhibitor suffered a late fee. For every step along the way to exhibiting, it is CRITICAL to KNOW YOUR DEADLINES! You will save money not only on drayage, but in several other areas of the show. Missing deadlines shows lack of organization and carelessness, and results in unnecessary fees.
  • The entirety of the shipment consisted of several separate parts to move to the booth space. Each piece of freight moved requires a minimum payment, regardless of the shipment’s weight; by consolidating as much freight as possible, drayage costs are reduced significantly.
  • The shipments are very heavy. When calculating drayage costs, the general contractor measures the freight weight in CWT (C = 100 in roman numerals, WT = weight). One CWT = 100, and that number never changes, no matter what show or who the general contractor of the show is. To calculate your estimated drayage cost on one piece of freight, divide the number of pounds your shipment weighs by 1 CWT (100) to get the number of CWTs of your freight. Then, multiply the number of CWTs by the minimum payment (as stated in the point above). Here’s an example:
    • Say a shipment weighs, on a normal scale, 2000 pounds, and the minimum cost per moved freight is $200.
      2000 (lbs) ÷ 100 (1 CWT) = 20 CWTs
      20 CWTs x $200 each = $4000 for drayage, not including late fees, etc.


What can I do to reduce drayage costs?

  • Make your shipment as light as possible. We realize that can be a difficult task. Every part of your shipment is an asset to your booth, and therefore an asset to your company. But, by replacing heavier pieces with a lighter material, or eliminating unnecessary items from your shipment, you can reduce material handling costs.
  • Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. While this may seem counteractive to keeping the shipment weight down, you will incur far greater fees by separating shipments into lighter loads. This is because there are minimum receiving charges for EVERY PIECE OF FREIGHT. By keeping the number of shipment pieces as low as possible, you are receiving, essentially just one or two receiving and CWT fees, rather than several separate receiving and CWT fees.
  • Ship smaller, lighter pieces to the hotel. Again, if you have a 20 pound box sent standalone with the rest of the booth, you will receive a minimum receiving charge (likely between $100-$250 per piece), regardless of weight. While you may have to pay a good amount for FedEx or UPS to ship to the hotel, the cost of the receiving charge and the show dock is likely much greater.
  • And, of course, KNOW YOUR DEADLINES. Don’t add to your bill just because you didn’t know your move-in date or submitted your forms late.


While drayage is an annoying hidden cost, it can be detrimental to the exhibitor if gone unrecognized. Stay ahead of the game by being aware of material handling costs, incorporating an estimation into your company’s show budget, understanding how trade show shipping costs work and maintaining up-to-date knowledge of your shipment’s handling information.


Trade Show Budget Worksheet

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