The trade show and convention industry is one of the fastest growing industries in San Francisco, and trade show installation is one of the newest trades. Sign, Display and Allied Crafts Union Local 510 started in 1900 organizing outdoor commercial sign painters and later billboard painters. The modern display industry in San Francisco began in the late ’60s, took off as a showcase for the booming computer tech industry in the 1990s, and then became the technology extravaganza it is today. A new trade was born, combining skills including floor covering, furniture installation, signage, graphics, sign hanging, fabrication and modular room assembly.
One of the most dramatic jobs of the trade is rigging. Riggers attach cables to secure signs, banners, drapes and anything else that needs securing. They ride in scissor lifts and boom lifts high up in the air and figure out ways to secure objects with cables.
On the Job Site visited with Local 510 members to find out what it is like hanging signs and putting up booths. We spoke with workers for Freeman preparing a show for neurosurgeons in Moscone South and workers for GES preparing a show for Microsoft across the street in Moscone West. Local 510 has approximately 800 members in the greater bay area.
–Voices From the Union–
When I first started over 30 years ago, someone referred to us as glorified carnys, and one of the old hands responded, “Where’s the glory?”
My understanding is that cities didn’t have large venues for conventions, and in San Francisco they would use big tents. The first convention companies were tent builders, but then GES saw the business potential and bought out the tent company. Over the years they have professionalized the industry into what we have today.
Back then you just showed up and after working 50 hours you got on the B-list and after 360 hours you were on the A-list. There was no training. You put in the hours and you were a journeyman. I had an engineering background, and it was a way I could go surfing and work when I needed to.
Now we have an apprenticeship program with classes in all aspects of the trade: floor layout, metal work, rigging, and above all, safety. The guys today are highly educated and professional.
These days we work with extruded aluminum pipes and drapes to create booths. Sometimes you get a booth that’s somewhat complex and you work your brains to come up with a solution to problems the designer hadn’t considered. Other times you’re just like a robot, building the walls and rooms without much thought. It’s all about making the structures strong and safe.
I’m 68 years old and still healthy and strong and feel lucky I had a trade that allowed me to do what I wanted to do. I retired and then came out of retirement for financial reasons. We can work 39 hours a month and still collect a pension.
Vice President of Local 510
My mother danced for the San Francisco ballet and my father was the front man for Sopwith Camel, one of the early San Francisco rock bands. The use of riggers in trade shows really began in rock ‘n’ roll concerts with light shows and hanging walls of sound speakers. Then it took off with all the theatrical stuff in the early Pink Floyd concerts.
I’ve worked as a rigger and in every other aspect of our trade. It’s interesting being vice president. I’m very proud to be part of the labor movement. It gives meaning to my work and makes it something more than a regular job.
This is not the America I grew up in. The amount of inequality is so far beyond what it was when I was born in 1971. I was raised in San Francisco and grew up in a working-class city where you could afford an apartment. Within a few years of getting out of high school, an apartment was unaffordable. Organized labor is not a panacea, but it is one of the things that makes society a lot better.
When I started working in the trade 30 years ago, it was all word of mouth. You’d be hanging out and the guys in the neighborhood would say, “There’s a convention coming and they need some labor.” That’s how I got into the trade.
A lot of it is changing with all the new technology. Everything is going digital. Guys still hang signs and banners, but now they are also hanging lots of monitors.
The shows are always different. There’s always something new. It breaks up the monotony. We may be doing the same thing from show to show, but the shows are different and we get to see different things. It’s pretty interesting.
I love the trade and the freedom of a variable schedule.
You get to see all the latest products. Whatever people are advertising, no matter what the industry, we get to see it. Whatever is new, we see it. My favorite show is the Dreamforce, Salesforce show.
When you’re on a lift, things look a lot different from 40 feet off the ground. You get a bird’s eye view, but the ceiling can be kind of dirty and it can become hot up there. When you finally get down after eight hours in the boom, with all the rocking back and forth, you sometimes get sea legs. You can be a little unsteady when you first try to walk.
Today I’ve been hanging signs. Our convention center has a high ceiling. And we have to hang whatever the exhibitors bring with them, which can be anything from a lightweight banner to something weighing a ton and requiring big trusses.
It’s all about getting the sign level, but the real trick is orchestrating the people and the equipment. The most interesting part of the job is all the people I get to work with. I’ve worked with some of these guys for close to 40 years.
When I started, everything was different. We used rolling scaffolds and we never had a big beautiful center like this. We used to operate out of a parking garage. We used Brooks Hall or various hotels. Now the whole situation has changed, and we have become much more aware of safety and potential hazards.
It’s challenging driving a lift around. It’s fun being up in the air, but it can get a little old. I did a lot of rigging when I was younger. In those days the lifts were propane powered, along with the forklifts. Everything goes up in the air and you’re right up there next to the ceiling. Sometimes the air was not too good. I can remember getting light headed. Now of course they are all electric.
The most important thing is not running anybody over. We have a ground man that keeps an eye on everyone and keeps them away from the lift. Everything is safer now.
It’s a pretty challenging job. You have to pay attention to what type of cable you’re using and the weight of the sign and how you are going to attach it.
No matter what you’re doing, safety is paramount. There’s no room for error when you’re hanging something over people’s heads. You need 360 degree vision. You need to know everything that is going on around you. But you can’t see 360 degrees, and knowing that, and being aware of your dead spots, makes you conscious of what you can’t see.
Trade show installers are decorators. We’re not just putting something up in the air. The finished product needs to look good, and the work above the finished product that’s holding it up has to look good, too.
Every sign is different and presents different problems: location, weight, height, and the type of sign. The hardest are the ones the clients build themselves. Sometimes they look homemade, and you have no idea how stable they are. You wonder, how do they expect me to hang this? I’ve had ones made out of wood with ropes to hold it up. You wonder if it will make it up, let alone stay up until the end of the show.