Let’s Get This Show on the Road

By on March 1, 2010
RoadKing Mag

A few hours before the World of Concrete show opened in 2008, someone spilled a large cup of coffee on the lush Champagne-colored carpeting inside Peterbilt’s display area. A stain quickly spread and, despite the efforts of workers wielding a variety of detergents, it couldn’t be removed. With the clock running out, Steve Collins, one of several people on the scene, had an idea. He rushed to a Home Depot store and quickly returned with several large potted plants, which were strategically placed over the dark brown blotch.

The show must go on — stain free, at least in the eyes of visitors.

Collins is part of a small army of laborers who handle the bits in exhibits and put the show in trade show. His employer, Kentucky-based Spiff Services, is the oldest and largest of three firms catering to heavy truck manufacturers.

Before such companies existed, truck makers relied on their dealerships to prep and deliver vehicles to nearby
shows. The arrangement was less than ideal because dealers routinely gave low priority to the corporate requests for help.

Spiff’s founder, Michael Carnes, was a trucker and card-carrying Teamster when he launched his company in the early 1970s. “My union was on a prolonged strike, and I was getting restless and hungry so I began detailing cars and trucks,” he says. “I had a chauffeur’s license and could legally move any vehicle I was cleaning. That created an opportunity for me.”

A job turns into a new business
In 1974, Carnes learned that Peterbilt was looking for someone to wash and wax its show trucks. With an endorsement from his local dealer, he got the contract and, shortly thereafter, went to events around the country, polish and ambition at the ready. He soon signed up Kenworth, too, and later Mack and Freightliner.

As the number of Carnes’ clients grew, so did his list of services. The Spiff portfolio now includes everything from transportation to exhibit assembly and disassembly to vehicle repair and accessorizing to nightly display-area maintenance. “I don’t like to say ‘no’ to people,” he says.

Reluctance to turn down client requests is common in this business. “You can’t make money by saying no,” says Kevin Thomas, president of Thomas Enterprises of Greensboro, the company handling Volvo’s trade show activities. “We’re occasionally asked to do some pretty wild things, and we always say yes.”

Like Carnes, Thomas started as a truck washer, working for a variety of customers. His relationship with Volvo began in the late 1980s, when he was hired to clean vehicles before special events. In 1991, he learned that the company occasionally needed people to move trucks within its dealer network. Sensing an opportunity, he quickly acquired a commercial driver’s license and became a corporate trucker. “That developed into a nice addition to my business,” he says. About six years later, Volvo managers asked him to add yet another dimension to his operation: trade shows.

“All of a sudden we became a one-stop shop,” he says.

It was trial by fire. His first gig was the Mid-America Trucking Show, the nation’s largest truck-centric annual event. “I had no idea how much work went into that show,” he says.

Thomas learned the ropes, though, and eventually grew into the role he has now, handling nearly all of Volvo’s trade show needs, which extend far beyond the moving, washing and waxing of trucks.

“We’re in charge of transporting everything,” he says. “We also oversee the assembly and disassembly of exhibits. Plus, we coordinate all of the necessary labor and make sure those expenses don’t exceed our budget.”

Keep things moving
Cost overruns can be a problem in some convention halls when a local union comes in to work a show. “They’ll sometimes hold back workers until overtime charges apply, says Tom Palenchar, Volvo’s product marketing manager. “Fortunately for us, Kevin knows who to talk to, and he’s able to ensure the crews are on time and focused on their jobs. All our labor last year was done on straight time.”

Unions aren’t the only potential foot draggers in the days leading up to a show, says Steve Virostek, president of Illinois-based Performance Transportation, the trade show service provider for International Truck & Engine.

Body builders can also be troublesome, he says. “There are always a lot of last minute details, and we like to have the trucks sitting at local dealers a week before move-in day, in case we need to swap parts or do some touch-up painting. Unfortunately, the people who build and mount van boxes, mixers and dump bodies want to keep the trucks ’til the very last minute. They don’t seem to realize that driving to the destination cities requires time, especially for the year’s early shows when we’re sometimes dealing with blizzards in January or February.”

Another source of stress for Virostek and his two competitors is the continuous search for employees. “In our line of work, you must be a good driver and have a good personality,” he says. “You’re always dealing with the public. I hire only people who have been recommended to me, and I’m always looking for folks who are smarter than I am.”

Thomas says creativity is equally important. “You need to think like MacGyver. There’s always a curveball headed your way, and you rarely have much time to solve problems.”

Problem? Find a solution
Stories of unanticipated hurdles abound among trade show workers. Carnes says his crews routinely face exceptional challenges. One episode a few years ago illustrates the point. “We did a corporate event at the Bellagio in Las Vegas when Peterbilt introduced its Model 387,” he says. “The building’s exterior door was 14 feet tall, but the interior door was only about 11 feet. We spent most of the night outside, trying to shorten the trucks so they’d fit through the lower opening. We finally got them inside, onto the stage, reassembled and prepped — just in time before the event started.”

Being so resourceful is a mixed blessing. Over the years, truck makers have come to expect near perfection from their chosen trade show companies, regardless of the situation.

“I don’t know if there were ever problems setting up a show,” says Dan Danko, director of marketing for Mack Trucks. “If so, Mike just put extra muscle on the job to ensure that everything worked as planned. We never hear about those things. The Spiff guys do a lot of extraordinary stuff behind the scenes, and it’s so normal for them that they don’t bother to tell us about it. And we take it for granted.”

Jesse Averhart, vocational marketing manager for International, shares this sentiment. “We might complain about the prices these companies charge for moving trucks and setting up events, but in the end they do great work,” he says. “They’re very reliable, and we know they’ll get the job done, no matter what we’ve asked them to do. That gives us a lot of peace of mind.”

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