Convention Center Lost $15 Million Show Over Electric Screwdrivers

We will have none of your battery-powered hand tools.

Philadelphia is a maddening place. And nowhere are things more maddening than at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Two million square feet, but no power tools. (Associated Press)

You remember the Pennsylvania Convention Center, that big “state-of-the-art” box on Arch Street that recently underwent a massive $786 million expansion to take it to more than two million square feet. The place where exhibitors have complained about the bad behavior and high prices of union labor since the center debuted in 1993. Yes, that Convention Center.

Several years ago, the Convention Center board employed a group of consultants to assess the experience of conventioneers at the facility. The consultants’ conclusion: “Virtually every customer reported that [Convention Center] show labor was inefficient, hostile, or both. The [Convention Center] labor situation is perceived as the worst encountered anywhere in the country at this time.” Read that one more time for full effect.

Well guess what? Little has changed.

Until last week, the pharmaceutical and biotech (read: big bucks) convention Interphex was in talks to bring its annual 10,000-person event to Philadelphia in 2014. According to Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Jack Ferguson, Interphex was looking at Philadelphia as a more inexpensive option than its 2013 destination, the Javits Center in Manhattan.

And with the Convention Center’s taxpayer-funded expansion, making it comparable in size to Javits, as well as to facilities in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Phoenix, suddenly Philadelphia was a competitive choice. Or at least it was supposed to be.

If you’ve ever been to one of these big conventions, you know the setup: a giant room filled with exhibitor booths showcasing the latest in whatever it is that the convention is about. Exhibitors typically assemble their own displays.

Naturally, this being the 21st century and all, an exhibitor might want to make use of a cordless electric screwdriver to make the job a little quicker and easier, maybe a Black & Decker that you can pick up at Lowe’s for 20 bucks, and this was the case with the folks at Interphex.

But no.

Way back in the flush days of 2003, the leaders of the six local unions that work at the Convention Center signed a 21-page Customer Satisfaction Agreement, which was supposed to be dedicated to “creating and maintaining the highest level of customer satisfaction.”

In addition to laying out some ground rules for union members’ behavior (no verbal or physical threats against the conventioneers, no selling or using illegal drugs while on the job, no “shoving,” and no weapons “of any kind”), the CSA also spells out rules and “rights” for the exhibitors. And there it is, right there in Exhibit C, Paragraph E, Subsection 1: An exhibitor “may use hand tools … but not power tools including battery operated tools, or ladders.” My attempts to ascertain whether a flashlight counts as a hand tool have been unsuccessful.

As anyone with good sense would do, the Interphex people took issue with this clause and expressed their concerns to the Convention & Visitors Bureau. According to Gregory Fox, president of the Convention Center Authority’s board of directors, there was something resembling an attempt to accommodate Interphex’s needs by making available a small group of screwdriver-toting union carpenters, supposedly for free.

“But that didn’t do the trick,” says Fox, and Interphex turned its back on Philadelphia last week, a loss of $15 million in economic impact, according to the CVB’s Ferguson.

“The customer emphasized that until the antiquated rules in the building changed,” says Ferguson, “they will not return with any of their other trade shows. We went out to get a piece of business and, unfortunately, the current labor rules in the Convention Center do not allow for this.” (No one I reached at Interphex would speak on the record. Carpenters’ union boss Ed Coryell did not return a call seeking comment, nor did a representative of Elliott-Lewis, the labor broker for the Convention Center.)

The good news here, if there is any good news, is that the Customer Satisfaction Agreement between the unions and the Convention Center will expire on July 14, 2013. Fox and other members of the Convention Center Authority’s Customer Satisfaction Committee are currently mulling over potential changes to the CSA, and he expects to present their findings and a proposal to the board later this fall. After that comes the fun part: union negotiations.

Until then, folks … yep, you guessed it. We’re screwed.