NPE Orlando: small world, big success

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ORLANDO, FLA. (April 17, 5:10 p.m. ET) — After 14 straight NPEs at Chicago’s McCormick Place, major machinery exhibitors had the most to gain by lower costs at the Orange County Convention Center for NPE2012 — and a sampling of officials from injection molding press makers gave Orlando a thumbs up.

Every three years, NPE turns its convention center home into the world’s largest plastics factory — if only for a week. The big machinery players consume a lot of power and have a wealth of complex equipment to set up and tear down.

McCormick Place had been NPE’s home since 1971. Until this year.

“All the procedures and the installation and the organization and the infrastructure here was very much easier to handle for our people compared to Chicago,” said Helmut Heinson, managing director of sales for Lossburg, Germany-based Arburg GmbH + Co. KG.

“Everybody was very, very happy. No comparison to Chicago. So, from a logistic point of view, from an organizational point of view, it’s a big step forward,” he said.

The Society of Plastics Industry Inc. said 55,359 people registered to attend the four-day NPE2012 in Orlando, up 26 percent from the five-day show in Chicago in 2009. Since NPE2009 was held in the gloom of the Great Recession, and these days manufacturing is humming, comparing total attendance numbers from 2009 and 2012 is like comparing apples — or in this case, Chicago-style deep dish pizza — to oranges, Florida’s leading export.

SPI announced the final registration numbers on April 17. Of the total, 26 percent came from outside the United States — and one-third of them were from Latin America. SPI officials said that fulfilled their prediction that the Florida location would attract more Latin American attendees to NPE2012 — held during Holy Week.

The next NPE, in 2015, is scheduled for March 22-26, so it will conclude 10 days before Easter and will not overlap with spring break season.

SPI also announced that 40 percent of the exhibiting companies at NPE2012 were international firms. The largest group was from China, with a little over 300, or 16 percent of all exhibitors. The 28 exhibitors from Mexico and South America represented the largest contingent ever from Latin America.

SPI has not announced another important geographical breakout number: How many Midwestern processors made the long journey to Florida?

But exhibitors were generally happy. In some cases they brought two or three times as many machines to NPE2012 than the show three years ago. They made sales.

SPI said nearly 15 million pounds of freight was shipped to OCCC, compared with 9 million at the 2009 NPE.

One big difference in Florida, a right-to-work state, is a more flexible setup process. At McCormick Place, rigid work rules required that union workers do much of the machine setup and connect electric power to each machine, even to plug in an extension cord. Seen as costly hassles, they came to a head at the recession-racked NPE2009.

Chicago let it fester

For years, exhibitors had complained about union charges and the high cost of exhibiting at McCormick Place. Crain’s Chicago Business, a sister newspaper of Plastics News, detailed high costs apart from union labor, such as cost-inflating markups by general contractors like Freeman Co. and Global Experience Specialists Inc., as well as by trade associations that put together the shows.

On Nov. 17, 2009, SPI dropped the bombshell that the Washington-based trade association was moving NPE from Chicago to Orlando. SPI leaders claimed exhibitors would save a total of $10 million because of lower costs for move-in and move-out, utilities and travel.

SPI said attendees would save another $10 million in travel-related costs.

The news grabbed headlines in both cities. Chicago began working to restructure McCormick Place to make trade shows more affordable.

Trade shows have a major economic impact. The five-day NPE2009 generated $95.3 million in direct spending, according to the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. The number was $157 million for the 2006 show, held in a stronger economy.

“After plastics announced they were leaving, it was a huge thing in our industry,” said Dan Steenstrup, senior vice president of Freeman, NPE2012’s general contractor.

In Orlando, convention officials were faced with hosting a major industrial trade show, a total of 940,000 square feet of exhibit space and more than 1,900 companies.

“It’s a big story for the industry,” said Jessie Allen, general manager of the Orlando County Convention Center. “A lot of other exhibit and trade shows watched what happened with this event. It didn’t go under the radar. So there were folks from other companies, other trade shows, other venues, who were watching: Would Orlando fall? Will it fail? Will it be successful? Would my show work in Orlando? If this [NPE] works, that means mine would work.”

Interviewed after the show closed, Allen credited SPI staff, the NPE operations committee and convention center employees for working for the last 18 months to make NPE2012 function smoothly.

“It takes courage for them to leave a destination they’ve been at for so many years, and to come to a community that they were suspicious about — let’s call it what it was, they were suspect” of Orlando, Allen said. “But the proof of it was in the pudding. The end result is that it was a tremendous event.”

Orange County Convention Center had hosted big shows before. The International Builders’ Show drew 100,000 before home building tanked.

But NPE is by far Orlando’s largest-ever trade fair in terms of electrical consumption — especially in the West Hall, where most large machinery makers were located.

Before the show opened April 1, there were some concerns about the electric power capacity at the Orange County Convention Center.

“The power concerns are not when all the machines are running. It’s when everybody starts up in the morning. That’s the biggest power surge,” said Mark Sankovitch, president of Engel Machinery Inc. in York, Pa.

There was some talk of the need for staged startups each morning. But machinery executives said that was not necessary.

Allen said the convention center invested $4 million to upgrade electrical floor ports, cabling and electrical connections. Progress Energy, the electrical supplier, “made a substantial upgrade in their transformers” to deliver power, he said.

The convention center needed the improvements, Allen said. “Certainly the driving force was NPE2012, but it now positions us in a better role for future shows, whether they have a similar demand for power or less,” he said.

Union, but different

Many veteran NPE exhibitors have their McCormick Place union stories. Orlando County Convention Center is unionized too, but as a right-to-work state, union membership is optional.

Another big change: Exhibitors could use their own employees to assemble machines.

OCCC has two unions: the Teamsters, who unload trucks and haul shipping crates to the booth, and the Stagehands (IATSE) who move freight, lay carpets, put up banners and signs and help with booths.

Before the Orlando show, people in charge of setting up their companies’ booths wondered if central Florida would have the talent to handle heavy plastics equipment, known as rigging.

“And the answer was no, they do not have the skill moving machinery,” said Steenstrup of Freeman. The contractor brought union riggers down from Chicago to help local riggers move in the large machinery.

“Machinery rigging is a whole other skill set,” Steenstrup said. “I mean, you’re talking about 90,000 pounds, is the biggest machine we had. And you’ve got a crane and operators and people that know how to put the straps on and how to leverage things. It’s very complicated, and it’s really difficult to train people to do that down here.”

John Adamowicz, the Arburg application engineer who helped with the setup, said that was a good move.

“In the rigging, they had ample people. They had brought in a lot of people from Chicago to do the job. The rigging people from Chicago are first-class. They work in that industry,” he said.

Bob Starr, who coordinates trade shows for Milacron LLC, agreed. “That makes a lot of sense. You have people from Chicago that are very familiar with the rigging for this kind of equipment,” he said. “And when you’re taking off a machine that weighs 65,000 pounds, you want somebody who’s very experienced in doing so.”

Peter Neumann, president and CEO of Engel Holding GmbH, said the convention center has more loading areas than McCormick Place, so move-in and move-out take less time. That’s part of the cost savings, he said.

“This hall has so many entrance doors. So we could enter with the machines parallel to other exhibitors. In Chicago, you have one big entrance door and you have to line [trucks] up there. The waiting time costs you a lot,” said Neumann. Companies could erect their own machines and hook up their own utilities — a big cost savings, officials said.

“The connection to our machine in the past, in Chicago, we weren’t allowed to do this,” Heinson said. “But here we did everything. The electric, the water, all the utilities. So here our people could really work. In Chicago, our people could only instruct other people to work. But the other people were no experts, you see? So it took longer and was much less efficient.”

Neumann said the electrical hookups cost big money. “It was really a very expensive issue in Chicago and we would only give them advice.”

Starr, who is Milacron’s global marketing director, said exhibitors at NPE2012 paid for a bundle package that included all costs, including labor. But using Milacron employees for much of the work was a positive change compared with Chicago, he said.

“It’s a great thing, because you already have the electrical engineers and individuals that are capable of doing so, and now you are able to use them, as opposed to them directing somebody else, as you would in Chicago,” Starr said.

Steenstrup said trade shows need organized labor, as one show follows another at a convention center.

“We can’t pull off these shows without organized labor ... because we’re going to be in here for two weeks and then we’re going to leave. And then another contractor comes in. So we can’t all be having different labor forces running around here,” said the Freeman executive. “The great news is these guys are organized. They’re trained. They’re professional. This is what they do. And it really works to the industry’s benefit.”

Steenstrup said, though, that exhibitors don’t want to be forced into burdensome work rules.

“I think what Orlando has done is given them a choice. When it comes to the rigging, they want qualified union people. But when it’s at their booth, they’re plugging something in, they don’t want to pay for that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chicago is fighting back, and some of the same reforms are coming. The authority that runs McCormick Place and unions that represent McCormick workers have agreed to reforms — after settling a lawsuit filed by unions to block a state law that established work-rule changes. The reforms, effective last Nov. 1, include an “Exhibitors’ Bill of Rights” allowing exhibitors to perform their own work in their booths.

Allen acknowledged that the Orange County Convention Center has unions, but he stressed the difference between a union in right-to-work Florida and one in Chicago.

“The unions in Orlando are in no way as – how can I say this – demanding as the unions in the Chicago region,” he said.

Allen said the OCCC prides itself on permitting exhibitors to work in their booth space. “If they plug in a piece of equipment or if they want to hand-carry something in to their exhibit space from the loading dock, nobody’s going to wreck their booth or damage them in any way as a result of it, or no one going to stand there with their hand out and say, if you want this done, grease this palm,” he said. “So that’s really the difference of it. We focus on customer service and ensuring that our guests are treated well. And that’s our hallmark.”