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Portable Exhibits: What to Know When You Don’t Use Show Labor

April 29, 2016

Union workers are a substantial part of trade shows and exhibitions. Experts specializing in various fields, including carpenters, electricians, plumbers, decorators, carpet layers and teamsters, help trade show marketers and convention center staff set up events safely and efficiently. Although sourcing the tasks of setup and breakdown to Union workers can allow you to focus on customer service and networking, it’s not always necessary to utilize these services. Here are a few things to consider when you want to save some money by setting up your own booth.

Although union guidelines vary from state to state and change regularly, a few specifications for setting up your own trade show booth in the U.S. are almost universal (outside of the U.S. rules tend to be more relaxed about labor). First is the space and size of your exhibit. Rules state that as long as your exhibit doesn’t exceed 10 ft by 8 ft or cover more than 100 sq feet; you’re allowed to set it up on your own. The second specification is time. Trade show attendants have 30 minutes to set up a single booth, with only one employee of the company performing the setup. To make sure you’re well within these narrow parameters, plan out your booth to meet the size and space requirement, and then practice setup at least a few weeks before your event. If it takes one person more than 30 minutes to set up the exhibit, find ways to speed up the process, such as pre-installing elements of the display or removing complicated features.

Use of Tools

Union workers have the market cornered on using  tools at trade shows. As an exhibitor, you will not be allowed to use any type of tool including screwdrivers, wrenches, or hammers to install your exhibit. Interestingly, ladders are also considered tools of the trade. The use of a ladder as a tool is not specific to Unions too, as the use of a ladder also has a Workers Compensation Insurance coverage implication. For many complicated stands, hand tools are a must, so if you’re serious about staying away from Union labor, find a pop-up, banner stand backdrop or air powered exhibit that installs easily.


Trade shows are typically large endeavors requiring a lot of electricity, which is why the rules for electricians, lighting and power are so strict. For most convention facilities, trade show attendants can plug in electrical devices, including equipment and lighting, to a provided 120V electrical outlet, as long as the power is 20 amps or less. Lighting can be used as long as you don’t need a ladder or tools to install it in your trade show booth. Trade show booth exhibitors can run cables between machines as long as the cables are above the booth’s carpeting.


Unions are very specific when it comes to the limits for exhibit handling. As a trade show exhibitor, you’re allowed to hand carry one load to your booth space. Unions can vary on the use of two-wheeled dollies, but in almost every case, four-wheeled carts are not allowed. Keep your booth small and pack light in order to stay well within these limits.  Also, make sure to verify all rules of thumb by double checking with your show organizer for each show.

Learning the rules for working with unions will help you develop a strong working relationship with the men and women who work to keep exhibitors and attendees safe at these large-scale events.

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