Good communication, careful planning, and detailed security and safety considerations are crucial in staging trade shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Business is booming at the Las Vegas Convention Center. This year, the facility will play host to more than 88 events, an increase of 46% since 2000. In March alone, the facility hosted 19 events, a new monthly record. Those events drew a total of 163,000 people to the LVCC in March, not counting exhibitors and support crews.

Most of the events held at the LVCC are trade shows, but the venue also hosts a handful of large corporate events, such as national sales meetings, as well as a handful of entertainment events, such as a national table tennis tournament held there each December. Many of the events take place simultaneously at the facility, and they can range in size from attracting a couple of thousand people to tens of thousands.

To accommodate that kind of traffic the LVCC obviously needs a lot of space, which is why it has undertaken numerous expansion projects during its 44-year history. The latest multimillion-dollar expansion project was completed in January 2002 and added 934,988 square feet of exhibit space and 90,501 square feet of meeting space to the facility. Today, the Las Vegas Convention Center boasts a hearty 3.2 million square feet of total space, including approximately 2 million square feet of net exhibit space.

But successful trade shows and events require more than a spacious location. They also require facilities run by people with a deep understanding of the intricacies of event management. At the LVCC, the man who supplies that understanding is general manager Jim Pickering. During his 20 years with the LVCC, Pickering has served in a number of capacities, including event coordinator and director of facilities. Now, as general manager he's responsible for virtually everything at the convention center — ranging from the maintenance of the facility to ensuring that the LVCC staff offer the advance planning and collaboration needed to make each event a success. He recently spoke with SRO about many of these issues at the LVCC and collaborating with trade show and event organizers.

SRO: What kind of planning process do you use to keep the facility up to date?

Pickering: We do a master plan every 10 years and then update it about every five years. The purpose is to try and gauge the needs of our customers, and then we try to build toward that. We added exhibit halls and meeting room space in 1992 and 1998, and we recently completed the South Halls, which opened with the CES Show in 2002.

SRO: Beyond just adding more space, are there other things you do to improve the facility?

Pickering: Yes. We've added restaurants and increased concession areas. We have a provider for inhouse communications — telephones and data lines — and we've given them the task of expanding to wireless communications. We continually see new needs in the technology field. You almost can't keep abreast of them anymore, but we work toward that.

SRO: What are the most challenging technology issues you are facing?

Pickering: The most challenging problem at the moment is the change from a hardwire telephone system to wireless phones and wireless computers. The new push right now is to get our building so that it handles our guests in that way.

SRO: In order to execute a successful event, how much collaboration is required between the LVCC staff and event planners and staging crews?

Pickering: The collaboration begins when our marketing staff does tours to court people and bring them to town. When they actually come to look at the facility, marketing will bring our customer account managers in to go with them on site tours. At that point, they begin to get into the technical aspects of putting on an event. They discuss what information is needed and what can be put in a particular room. So the customer account managers begin to coordinate at that time.

SRO: What are the steps you go through to make sure things are staged correctly and efficiently?

Pickering: We have a building user's manual that outlines all the rules and regulations and all the quirks of operating a building of this size, and we begin by making sure the customer has that information in their hands. Then we question the clients about what they are going to do, when they are going to do it, and what size general sessions they are going to hold, so it all comes together in a proper manner. If there is a lot of rigging — hanging of lights, stage design, and things like that, which generally go with a typical general session — we need to see the rigging plan, and we need to begin to coordinate the move-in of the production so we know when they'll get their work done and how much time we have to put in a stage and the chairs, carpeting, and whatever.

SRO: Many booths at trade shows these days are incredibly elaborate with lots of staging and lights and projection displays. Do you work with each exhibitor to organize the parameters of their booths? And does each exhibitor normally use its own rental and staging vendor?

Pickering: Usually, the exhibitors work through a general services contractor, such as GES, Freeman, Champion, or Encore. The exhibitor can hire any staging contractor they want to set up their exhibit, but they are all channeled through the general services contractor because they are responsible for the security of the floor when it's in set-up mode and for ensuring that everyone gets in at the appropriate time. And the freight coming in all goes through them.

Therefore, every exhibitor's contractor has to go through us. We need to see their insurance and their licenses to check to be sure they are legitimate businesses. If there are any unusual booths or any double-deck booths, the rigging has to be approved because of the weight loads on our grid on the ceiling. We also have a fire safety group in our building that is responsible for checking out the fire and safety standards and for ensuring that the booths have the right stairs and access for ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].

SRO: As staging has gotten more sophisticated over the years, has that created any specific challenges for you that you've had to overcome?

Pickering: Not any serious challenges. Actually, we've seen more improvements that have lessened concerns. For example, lighting fixtures are getting better and are lighter weight. The rigging is more secure than it used to be, and in general, staging companies are just more professional in the way they are doing things.

The main challenge we have is being able to meet the technology that is being brought in. For example, being able to keep up with the requirements of, say, a Sony exhibit. They might come in with some real high-end equipment, something that's brand new, and our communication technology might not meet their needs exactly. But if there is early communication about what's required, what kind of cables and what kind of connectors, that's the key to solving that problem.

SRO: Do you ever run into a situation where the complexity of one booth conflicts with the complexity of a neighboring booth?

Pickering: It has occurred. We have a structural engineering company that comes in and helps figure out methods of redoing rigging points so that the hang is not so severe. We had that problem about four years ago — at COMDEX I think it was. We had Microsoft and Sony and some of those huge booths in the same hall, and of course, they were all trying to outdo each other. And it got to be a challenge there.

And then you get into situations where an exhibitor will want to put a roof on its booth or a screen or fabric of some sort to create a roof effect, and that's where fire safety has to look into those things, because that roof has to be porous so that water can come through should there be a situation where the fire system is activated. Sometimes, working through those kinds of problems can be painful, but we always manage to work out a satisfactory solution.

SRO: What can exhibitors do to make sure the process of setting up a booth goes smoothly?

Pickering: Providing early information is critical. If they bring us their plans in advance for us to look at so there is plenty of time to make adjustments before money is actually spent, that's more palatable than if they actually build it and bring it, and it doesn't meet our standards and our safety needs. Then it's traumatic because it can mean costly changes.

SRO: What about theft of equipment — security concerns? Has that been an issue you've had to wrestle with?

Pickering: Yes, that's a major concern. Certain types of technologies become a prime target for theft. For example, laptops are a big target because people are a little bit careless with them. They leave them in vulnerable positions. We try to tell everyone that they need to lock them up and not leave them lying on the counter. Plasma monitors are another prime theft target.

We have taken steps to try and combat that. We have two metropolitan police detectives working our show floors undercover at all times, and we've managed through that to capture people who are in the business of stealing things. We also have initiated a crime-stoppers program with the cooperation of the metropolitan police department. And all the exhibitor-appointed contractors and general services contractors have committed money to fund a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of thieves. So we are taking steps to curtail theft in our building.

SRO: Are there certain methods of operation that thieves use that people should understand?

Pickering: Anything that is vulnerable, such as plasma screens, needs to be kept secure until it is actually locked into the exhibit. Too often, these thefts occur when these things are sitting in a container that is clearly marked as to what it contains out on the floor, in the aisle, or near a door. It can slip out very easily if you are not watching carefully. We've also had them lost in transit, which isn't our facility's fault, but it's another place where these things are sitting in containers that are clearly marked, and they are not crated properly to keep people out of them.

SRO: Are these impulse thefts or carefully planned operations?

Pickering: They appear to be planned. We've had strong cooperation from the Local 631 Teamsters union because they have the majority of employees working on the floor. They are working with us to put an end to this because it's a black eye for them. But people do get in the building because they are members of the union, and they have the proper badge, and so they have the opportunity. And they plan these things out carefully. They get away with it sometimes and get they caught sometimes.

Stephen Porter is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. He can be reached at sporter@gsinet.net.