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Benjamin Spillman

Expo examines how trade shows can get a little greener

14 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Imagine furnishing hundreds of thousands of square feet of space with carpeting, furniture and decorative screening.

Now imagine doing it dozens of times annually at sites as far-flung as Orlando, Fla.; Seattle and Las Vegas.

That's how the trade show and convention business works. It's a model built on affordable transportation, abundant manual labor and throwaway temporary products.

With oil prices near $110 per barrel, labor costs rising and scrutiny of wasteful practices intensifying, it's a business model that some say needs to change for the industry to remain viable. If it doesn't, Las Vegas could be looking to plug a big hole in a local economy that derives about $8.2 billion annually from trade shows and conventions.

"Our customers are pulling us into this," said Liese Tamburrino, vice president and general manager of MG Design Associates. "There is a perception we aren't moving fast enough."

MG, based in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., designs and builds trade show and convention exhibits.

The company is in Las Vegas this week for the Exhibitor 2008 event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, a national education conference for trade show and corporate event marketers. MG supplies products as small as tabletop displays to massive trade show exhibits costing more than $1 million.

The company is also part of the convention and trade show industry's nascent green trend.

Recent MG products include a booth for sock manufacturer Fox Mills that used renewable cork oak instead of carpet floor covering, low-wattage lighting and a recyclable, biodegradable wood-pulp product called rhythm board for a key visual element.

PortionPac, a chemical company, recently called on MG to build a booth with recyclable plywood and laminates, water-based adhesives, adhesive-free graphics, carpet made from recycled sneakers and fabric made from recycled plastic.

Doreen O'Reilly, an MG account executive, estimated green products and services represent about 20 percent of the company's business, and the figure is growing.

Offering alternative printing options alone can save fuel, eliminate the need for harsh glues and simplify event production, O'Reilly said. Putting show information online can reduce the size of show books that need to printed, transported and distributed at an event. Printing signs directly to a display board -- as opposed to printing onto a separate sheet and gluing it to the sign -- increases efficiency.

But displays like those by Fox River and PortionPac are the exception in the trade show industry. According to a survey sponsored by Exhibitor Magazine Group, just 38 percent of trade show exhibitors have taken steps to become more ecofriendly. The survey reported 63 percent of respondents haven't even considered changing their practices.

Much of the progress so far is limited to exhibitors in industries with a green bent, such as organic food producers, green building contractors and outdoor recreation companies.

"They are out there and leading the rest of us," said Dee Silfies, chief learning strategist for Exhibitor Conferences.

Cost is one of the greatest barriers to the industry's green movement, the survey suggests.

More than 70 percent of exhibitors are willing to pay a 5 percent premium for green products and services. That figure drops to 45 percent willing to shoulder a 10 percent premium and just 3 percent would pay a 25 percent premium.

There is also skepticism about the effectiveness of green products.

Quantifying just how much a particular product or service preserves the environment is murky business. Event exhibitors and suppliers who responded to the survey disagreed on the importance of all 11 categories for green products and services the survey identified.

People also distrust complicated methods that quantify the green value of products.

"They are tricky formulas," said Travis Stanton, editor of Exhibitor magazine. "Everyone is just a touch skeptical."