XLIVE Interview Series With Chuck Michel!

ELITeXPO’s Chuck Michel was recently interviewed by CJ with XLIVE at their recent event in Las Vegas! Here’s a transcript of their conversation!

This week on the XLIVE Interview Series, we sat down with Chuck Michel, VP Tradeshow Services for ELITeXPO. ELITeXPO provides products and services to businesses that exhibit at tradeshows worldwide. When it comes to tradeshows and events, one critical component that is somewhat behind the scenes is Freight Logistics.

Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today Chuck.  For those who don’t already know, can you tell us about ELITeXPO, the problems you and your team help solve and give us a brief background on the organization?

The company was founded in 1987 by David and Leslie Mihalik, originally called Elite Cargo; we focused ourselves as being a carrier of computer hardware, software and other various high tech materials. In 1990, a name change to ELITeXPO Cargo Systems was required when the cargo mix had changed from high tech to trade show and related trade show materials. After a few years it was evident to ownership that the Trade Show Industry was going to be the focus and the future of the company. With that said, ELITeXPO continued on the path of tradeshow industry innovations and high-level shipping services.

Fast-forward to 2009, and ELITeXPO launched its Tradeshow Services division, once again expanding its service offerings to meet the growing needs of our clients. Our Tradeshow Services division is a solid compliment to our founding core discipline offering our customers full Property Management of their exhibits. Core services include exhibit sales and rental, booth design, tradeshow graphics, lighting, installation and dismantle, storage and freight logistics.

Our goal has always been to remain committed to providing the best value and service to the event industry and to always be available and ready. After all, we realize that no matter where, no matter when, no matter how…the tradeshow must go on!

For our audience who probably have a bit more of an ‘event’ background, I was wondering if you could speak to the recent trends where there seems to be more of a blend between your core space of traditional tradeshows and the ‘events’ or ‘experiential’ marketing space.

There is no doubt that we are seeing more and more of a crossover between traditional tradeshows and experiential events. Quite honestly the lines are becoming somewhat blurred.

The first sign of this migration was the embracing of User Summits as a compliment to companies attending what was a traditional trade show. The advantages were a captive audience as opposed to one that is exposed to many vendors. But even more so was the operative word being ‘User’. In these situations a company would invite it’s target audience to experience the product during a one or two day event. They would be exposed to your product (or service) only, with real hands on opportunity for education. From there we started noticing that in the tradeshow space exhibitors were starting to embrace interactive multimedia technology- be it touch screens where one could play a game/enter a contest and at the same time learn about the product… often referred to as ‘edutainment’, live theatrical presentations themed around the brand messaging, or something as simple as charging stations that pulled people into the booth where you would then be able to engage.

You mention technology on the floor. I imagine you see all kinds of goods being moved in and out of events and shows, and at the end of the day you are responsible for the wellbeing of this material. What can you tell us about the security with regards to the wellbeing of your client’s logistics when it comes to on time delivery and arriving in good shape?

First and foremost, we are somewhat unique in that we are one of the few logistics partners out there that cater specifically to the tradeshow and event space. In other words, shows and events are our core discipline, we only move product that is associated with those two areas. And I think that is a very important distinction that one should consider when evaluating and choosing a carrier partner. Granted, there are may carriers out there to choose from, but very few that specialize in this market. Moving product on to the show or event floor is much different than say simply delivering to a warehouse or loading dock at some office park or industrial complex. There are a lot of moving parts one your shipment arrives at the tradeshow /event venue. You want to work with someone that knows the process and understands those logistics. The other real value add is when you work with a company such as us, you are not going to get a different person every time you call to check on the status of your delivery, you will always have the same team handling your shipment. In addition, we offer real time tracking, so you always know where your shipment is as it makes it’s way across the country.

At the end of the day, nothing could be worse than you showing up at the event and your freight is not there and everyone at ELITeXPO takes this very seriously. We will look at important details when it comes to how far in advance can we deliver, what type of requirements are in place to receive the shipment and work backwards from date and point of origin. We do our best to buffer time to allow for weather or other acts of God that might impact while in transit. The show is going to start, with or without you, and our job is to make sure it starts with you and your product staged and ready to go.

Chuck, you mentioned that in addition to making sure that your client’s products arrive to the tradeshow or event both safely and on time, you make sure it is staged. Can you explain in more detail what you mean here by staged?  Do you do more than just deliver?

Good catch CJ! We actually do go beyond the ever-important freight logistics portion of the process. In addition to the freight logistics, we also design and build the booth property that sits in the environment, in addition to setting it up and taking it down, which is known as I&D (Installation and Dismantle) in the industry. Many of our clients actually ask that we be the keepers of their property when not in use, more or less manage their assets; more or less be the brand stewards of their booth program. In this case we manage the entire inventory, make sure it is health and in good shape before it is off to the next event or show. We can communicate all this via online, meaning the client can actually view their set up in our staging area through our remote cameras, and order items online from their inventory. Today’s technology has really made it quite clear that we do indeed live in a global village.

What types of events do you work with most? Is there an event type which isn’t a good fit for ELITeXPO?

Honestly, when it comes to types of events, we really have covered pretty much all of them. Whether it is a B to B, B to C or a private user conference, while all might be different, the process and logistics are pretty much the same. At the end of the day, I can’t think of any particular type of event that isn’t a good fit.  Although I will say that outdoor vs. indoor events do pose different challenges with outdoor having the elements to contend with. In addition, events where food service is required also pose some unique challenges with the need for running water, cook tops, refrigeration and plumbing. But beyond that, we embrace them all.

What are some of the most common questions or concerns your clients and potential clients have about logistics for trade shows?

As I had mentioned earlier, the show is going to start, whether you are there or not.   Probably the biggest concern for most Exhibitors is the fact that this is a very time sensitive industry and they want to be assured that they will be ready when the show opens. And what many don’t realize is there is more to getting your product from point A to your booth space than meets the eye. There are many timely details that have to happen to ensure a seamless, safe on time arrival. For some exhibitors that are new to the game, they might not realize the importance of reviewing and understanding the official exhibitor package that they have access to when they sign up. In those pre show packages are key milestones that are outlined that if not followed can really impact the freight. For example; shipping specifications and or delivery schedules are detailed. There are actually what they call targeted move in times for certain shows, these targeted times actually dictate time/day that you can move in to your space. Windows like that can make freight delivery tricky. With that said, we make it point to review all of this material in advance of the show, whether the client asks us to or not. We realize that not getting the material there on time can ultimately cost the client millions of dollars in business. Many of our clients actually have us handle all the pre show paperwork for them. It is part of our ‘Show Kit Services’ offering to our clients. It gives them piece of mind knowing that all the ‘T’s are crossed and the ‘I’s are dotted and one less concern to have on their plate.

What are the biggest problems in the industry and how do you solve them?

Every industry faces challenges, and those challenges hopefully can be addressed, solutions derived and we move on to the next.  I would say that right now the biggest challenge specific to Freight Logistics is the increasing lack of drivers. According to the American Trucking Association one of the biggest issues is the relatively high average of the existing work force. Attempting to recruit younger drivers is more difficult than it might seem. Today trucking for the most part is really no longer seen as a, cool, fun or exciting career path. Many young people who are looking for careers in some sort of technology and simply don’t have over the road driving on their career radar. With the new DOT regulations, long weeks of travel and limited family time have taken the luster out commercial driving. That coupled with the decrease of shopping via brick and mortar stores and the increase of online shopping ahs also caused a real unbalance. And fewer drivers result in fewer trucks available to move your tradeshow booth to the show floor.

While I am not sure how to solve the perception issues with tucking as a career, we at ELITeXPO do try to come up with solutions that can combat the problem.  And we have found that the best way to do that is educate our client. For example; we make every attempt when working with a client to secure their tradeshow schedule. And the reason for that is that now, more than ever, advanced planning is critical! The reason I point this out is when our team reviews a schedule the first thing we look at is what type of time do we need to safely get to show site? And based on that we then add a buffer. We also are extremely diligent about explaining this to the client why we do this.  We also educate the client that as we plan out the tradeshow schedule that they must realize (and budget) for potential increases cost due to driver shortage and or varying fuel cost. This is particularly important when you planning way ahead on a schedule. Clients are becoming more accustomed to realizing that it is no longer uncommon to re-quote something when you are 30 days out.

Taking the education even further, when evaluating a clients schedule we will also look at opportunities to get their product to the show way in advance. Shows offer what they call ‘advanced warehousing’ which insures that your product is already on site and ready for labor crews to get started at the given time. There is no doubt is usually a preferred alternative to shipping direct to show site right before the show starts.  Again, we will take the time to read through the exhibitor manual in order to help guide our client in their decision making process. Again, it’s about helping our client plan ahead and always watching out for their best interest.

Do you have a bold prediction for the trade show industry over the next 5 years?

Five years? Wow… with the way the industry seems to change in just a years time I don’t’ think my crystal ball really can go much beyond a year or so! But seriously, I think we are going to start to see more companies spend less of the marketing dollars on traditional advertising and spend more on live face to face events in concert with more digital marking.

I had mentioned earlier about user summits. I think the lines are going to start to get more and more blurred between traditional face to face exhibitions or tradeshows and we are going to start seeing more user summits. I actually recently read that we can expect to see formats evolving to gatherings that are part festival, part exhibition and part conference. The festival aspect is intriguing where you will start seeing more entertainment blending into the mix. This is very exciting. Don’t get me wrong, traditional face-to-face tradeshows aren’t going away, but I do think you will start seeing some of the new organizers working with some of the established associations to merge some of the old with the new formats. One thing I can say for sure. Statistics show that the exhibition industry as a whole is growing at a higher rate than previously expected. With that said, my crystal ball predicts that the future is bright for Face-to-Face marketing!

How, if at all, has the industry’s move to experiential changed ELITeXPO’s service offerings and the way you do business?

Tradeshow booth design and execution is no longer just about structural approach. In other words, it’s not about how cool will the architectural elements of the booth be? Granted, it is an element of importance, but we now have to think beyond that when working with our client’s booth footprint. Quite honestly, the shift has indeed moved much more towards the attendees experience within the booth space, or if you will…  the environment. This goal is achieved via the use of new interactive technology that enhances the attendee interaction with the brand, new types of materials such as flooring that make the attendee more comfortable, or creative LED lighting effects to name just a few. At the end of the day, it is really more about how is the attendee going to interact while in the environment. There is more of an emphasis now on how is the visitor is engaged and interact vs. how are we going to bombard them quickly with information on the product and or brand. So we have had to change our approach when looking at our client’s blank canvas on the floor, it has been a real shift in strategy for sure.

What’s the best part of working in the tradeshow industry?

Before I answer that let me just say that tradeshows are like Black Licorice, you either love them or you hate them. Now for the record, I am NOT a fan of black licorice, however I truly do love tradeshows. So to your question, I would have to say that there are quite a few reasons I am a big fan of the industry, and that changes day to day.  One of the most rewarding aspects is having the opportunity to help our clients be the best on the show floor. Being part of a real team effort to make sure their brand and product offerings look their best and stand out among their peers is very rewarding as show time approaches. Then there is the actual show itself. Hands down nothing beats ‘face to face’ marketing. Having people interacting with one another has to be one of the best ways to build trust and at the same time brand awareness. The energy level and excitement on the show floor when everything is in full swing has to be experienced to really understand what the buzz is all about. Most of us in the industry will agree that once it is in your blood, you are hooked!