By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
From its beginnings in 1981, the Moscone Center has grown to a world-class venue with three halls, hosting conventions with visitors from from around the world. Conventions have become a major San Francisco industry. Preparation for each show begins with an empty room. Then Sign and Display workers create a small city from scratch, to the exact specifications of the exhibitors. When the show ends, they tear it back down and start over again.
The workers are more than just installers. They interact with the vendors and become ambassadors for San Francisco, encouraging the vendors to return next year.
We met with members of Sign and Display Local 510/Painters and Allied Trades District Council 36 as they prepared for Bio 2016, The Global Event for Biotechnology. Over 15,000 attendees are expected from all over the world.
Preparing for the event includes assembling 500 conference rooms, in addition to the usual several floors of exhibit booths. The workers will be using a Modular Interlock System (MIS) of extruded aluminum channels that are locked together using a metric wrench. The frames for the walls are assembled in a factory by 510 members, and then the prefab walls are joined together on the exhibit floor. Smart fabrics are stretched across the aluminum frames, creating everything from booth panels to entire walls. The smart fabrics often have graphics printed on them, creating an amazing visual effect. Many of the conference rooms have doors with electronic locks and are sound proof.
The general contractor was Freeman, supported by numerous other smaller trade show companies.
–Voices From the Union–
Lead, Installation and Dismantle
I send guys out to build the exhibits and, when the show’s done, tear them down.
You just make sure they do a good job. And you do that by treating them like human beings and injecting a little humor so it won’t be such a heavy trip. This can be an intimidating environment, especially for someone new to it. If you make people feel comfortable and more relaxed, they can do a better job.
I’ve been doing this 20 plus years. A friend of a friend, who is in the union, turned me on to it. In the beginning I did a little, but then as you do a little more, you get more into it, and then it became a career.
There is always something different and always something new. I enjoy all the aspects.
I tell people what to do. I get the paperwork and figure out who is best at certain things and then I assign them to an area and explain where to find the pieces they’ll need to build the structure. The challenge is making sure everything is done on time.
Before working on the trade show floor, Mark worked for four years in a shop manufacturing and assembling the MIS prefab sections.]
In the shop you can learn the tricks to assembling things faster and more efficiently from guys who really understand the system. The work is much more structured. On the floor everything is much more fast-paced and you get to work more overtime. You get to see things from the start to the finished product, from an empty room with stacks of aluminum pieces to floors of booths covered with graphics and, in this show, rows of conference rooms.
Right now we’re putting together a booth for International Time and setting all the clocks to different world times.
This is my first week. My roommate, Rochelle, got me here. I’m just checking things out. So far I like it a lot and am thinking about the apprenticeship program. I like how well everything is organized and very fast paced. And it’s all about teamwork.
I like hands-on work. It makes the day go by faster. I like working hard, being active, and working with people. Before this I was a bartender, so I like working with different people and meeting new people every day, with all their different emotions. Some people get stressed out, some don’t. You just get used to it and it all works out.
I used to do graphics for AC Transit, but here I have the opportunity to do more than just graphics.
Building the booths is not rocket science, but you have to understand exactly what you’re doing. They give you a layout of what the client wants and you have to understand it. That is why we have lead workers who will help us. I’m an apprentice so I need to listen to my lead.
We get good training as apprentices, so we already have some familiarity. But now we get the opportunity to apply what we’ve learned. It’s a great educational opportunity.
I really like knowledge. I want to learn everything. I don’t want to be restricted to one thing. I’m a graphic design student, so this is really preparing me for what I want to do. I want to eventually have my own company. So this is the best place for me.
I also like that during the breaks between shows I can do other things. When I’m not doing this I do photography. I like landscapes and a little portraiture. I use the portraits to make cartoons and animations.
As a foreman, you have to make sure you put people in a position where they can succeed. So it’s about knowing how to assess people as quickly as you can and then pair them off with other people with the right skill sets. It generally works out in the end.
I’ve really enjoyed the work and all the people I’ve met. You’re dealing with exhibitors who’ve traveled here from all around the world. You find out that they are all pretty much the same. They all want the best for themselves and for their company. We all want to do a good job and that brings us together collectively. I’ve made a lot of friends in the process.
You have to be very detail orientated and take pride in your work. Right now, I’m drawing out the squares for a booth. This booth will have a carpet in the middle and two floor graphics on either side of the carpet. I have to make sure that I get the carpet directly in the center. It’s a matter of measure twice, because you can only cut once.
I was a janitor for SMG for about 10 years, and I noticed the guys who were setting up booths and laying down carpeting. I thought I might want to do that.
You get to do a lot of different things as an extra. You get to put up booths, take down booths, do display. I even did a little rigging, and that was fun. Pretty much everything you do here is a good experience, and the people are great to work with.
I’ve been doing this for about two years, and now I’m hoping to get into the apprenticeship program. I hope Destiny will too. There aren’t a lot of girls doing this work right now, so it would be great to get more females in the trade.
This is a really good job for women. It’s an equal workspace. You get a lot of respect. If you have a problem, you can tell somebody and they work it out. So that’s really nice, and everyone works really well together.
What I like the best is the way you go from a whole room of nothing and you build it up to a room full of booths displaying the latest innovative ideas.
I love doing graphics, seeing how people are using them to market their ideas. Here you get a behind-the-scenes view. Like these clocks – they are so intuitive. I’m not sure how they made them, but I think they are really cool, beautiful colors and a great use of Styrofoam.
Today I’m helping with the graphics department. It is all about organization and patience.
The graphics come in wrapped up on gondolas. We get work orders with pictures and sort the graphics out on tables and then take them to the right work areas. We try to get them out as quickly as we can. We don’t want anything sitting around too long.
I started over 20 years ago. Now there’s a lot more technology, and everything is much quicker. Back then we had phones and beepers; now we have cell phones, texts and emails.
I love working with people. I started out as an installer, but installing is much more labor-intensive, a lot of ladders and a lot of lifting. After 20 years it just beat up my body. For a while I ran a company. I was a good manager; people listen to me. I’ve traveled as a supervisor. Not a lot of women travel, but I loved it. I loved the excitement of all the different places and the different people. Conventions are conventions wherever you go, booths, trusses, and ladders, and if something gets stuck, you help get things moving.
You just stay mellow and don’t get upset. You’ve got to know how to motivate people. Some people aren’t as strong, some are afraid of heights. You just work with them and put people together. You motivate them by telling them what a good job they are doing,
If you’re always criticizing people, they’ll start downplaying you. I use positive reinforcement big time. I’m mom. I can sometimes take the worst workers and they’ll work hard for me by just being positive. I don’t panic. It’s all going to happen. I’ve never been to a show that didn’t open, never. I’ve had a few close calls.
I just try to stay energetic and upbeat. If you keep people happy, they want to come back and work for you again. Taking them out and having a beer is always a good thing. And it’s not just my own workers. It’s coffee and donuts for the Teamsters and making friends with the electrician. Do favors for people and they do favors for you.
I love it. It’s tough work but very rewarding. My son’s a rigging guy and my daughter’s an extra.
I started at the Palace Hotel when I was 14 years old. My father’s company was one of the first trade show companies in 1948, when they were still using tents.
The tents were before my time, but I remember when they first started using curtains and drapes. They used theater curtains. Then came the carpets. At that time you didn’t roll the carpets, you folded them like bed sheets. When you put them out they were a little floppy.
The extruded aluminum is fun. I remember the wooden stuff. That was hard.
My brother started a company. I tried management and sales, but I said, “Please put me back in the shop.” Now I do this for the fun. I should have quit 20 years ago, but I still work part time.