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Adventures in International Shipping

By Julie Krueger


  • Mastering shipping options and time frames
  • Material handling and what it costs
  • Why preparation is key

Missed the first two parts of this series? Get caught up on everything you need to know about timelines and travel and trade show labor.

When exhibiting at a trade show in the United States for the first time, managing the logistics of shipping and material handling can create a multitude of frustrations and surprises if not planned properly. Exhibitors must be aware of the important differences in regulations, costs, and practices to ensure their booth and materials arrive safely, on time, and at the right location.

This article is part of a series of four articles we’ve written to help international organizations uncover the behind-the-scenes details of bringing their brand experiences to U.S. shows. Throughout these articles, we discuss the ins and outs of travel, setup, labor, and more.

Here, we focus on the logistical details of shipping and material handling.

Shipping Options and Time Frames

Exhibitors have two delivery options when shipping materials to a convention center in the U.S.: advanced warehouse delivery or on-site delivery.

Advanced warehouse delivery can be advantageous if time permits.

With this approach, Freeman or the trade show’s general services contractor will store freight at its warehouse for up to 30 days in advance of the show. This can provide you with some peace of mind knowing that everything you need will be waiting for you when you arrive.

If you’re unable to meet the time frame required for advanced delivery, you can choose to have your freight delivered on-site directly to your booth or stand space on the day of setup, at a time specified by the show organizer.

But be aware, this window of time will be fixed. If you arrive early, you’ll have to wait until your designed time slot to receive your materials.

On-site delivery can also be more expensive due to freight forwarding and expedited carrier costs, such as UPS or FedEx. In addition, there is always the risk of delays in international deliveries, which can create serious problems for setup.

With small or delicate items, like graphics, brochures, or product samples, you may want to see if you can ship these items to you in your hotel room. However, you’ll first need to check the show regulations sent by the general services contractor, since union rules at some venues may not permit you to walk in your materials yourself.

Material Handling: What It Is and What It Costs

Material handling is the process of delivering a crate from the dock to your designated exhibit space.

Think of it as the “last mile” or “last kilometer” service: Shipping gets your exhibit materials to the convention center, but material handling gets them to your specific booth. This involves unloading your materials, delivering them to your booth, handling your empty containers to and from storage, and moving your materials from the booth for reloading onto your outbound carrier.

In many countries, material handling isn’t part of the process, as typically, stand builders take care of this themselves. In the U.S., material handling fees can add up quickly.

These fees can come as a shock to international exhibitors, so be aware of them ahead of time and plan for material handling in your budget.

Once the freight has arrived at the dock or advanced warehouse, it’s then weighed and billed. Each show will have its own billing rates and structures, so you may want to confirm this cost ahead of time. Costs are based on the weight of your booth and materials. Consider choosing lighter materials, like aluminum frames instead of wood, as this can help to reduce these costs.

Also, be aware that most shows will require you to pay your freight bill up front.

If the items are small, you may be able to avoid additional material handling fees by hand-carrying them or using baggage carts. However, first verify with the facility organizers or local event partners whether this is an option, since union rules or safety regulations may prohibit this.

Also, check before bringing any local delicacies (food or beverages native to your country). You don’t want to have any issues with customs and/or caterer exclusivity on top of material handling.

For exhibitors travelling to multiple shows, renting the display through the general services contractor and having materials printed locally may be a less expensive option than shipping everything. Rental displays can even be customized with your branded materials, enabling you to still deliver an innovative and inspiring brand experience — as well as a more cost-effective one!

Preparation Is Key

Ultimately, proper planning will drive success when exhibiting abroad — particularly when international shipping and material handling is involved. By being aware of how the process works and the fees involved, exhibitors can make wise choices that save them time, headaches, and money.

When in doubt, partnering with an experienced local exhibit partner like Freeman can make it easy to understand the rules and regulations of the venue and ensure everything goes smoothly.

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Timelines and Travel for International Exhibitors Best Practices

International Exhibitor Best Practices, Part One

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International Exhibitor Best Practices, Part Two

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International Exhibitor Best Practices, Part Four

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