Dealer Expo is a 3.5-million-pound show

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The Indiana Convention Center just got a lot heavier. There are more than 800 exhibitors, 210,000 sq. ft. of booth space — and get this — an estimated 3.5 million lbs. of exhibitor freight moved in for this weekend’s Dealer Expo.

So what does it take to build a show of this size? The answer: a lot of manpower, a great deal of coordination, and maybe a little luck when it comes to the weather.

We spoke with Tracy Harris, vice president of operations, and operations directors Lorri Monty and Leah Stevens to find out how a show of this magnitude magically comes together for a Friday morning opening.

Dealer Expo happens due to the combined efforts of more than 60 show management employees and hundreds of others who work for the show contractor, catering, security agencies, computers and IT, and more.

Advanstar Communications, which produces the Dealer Expo (and is also the parent company of Dealernews), takes possession of an empty Indiana Convention Center seven days before the show opens. At that point the entire floor is nothing but bare concrete. Employees of Fern Exposition & Event Services, which has been the contractor for Dealer Expo since the show’s inception 44 years ago, first measure out the floor, delineating every booth.

“So imagine that you look at a floor plan and you see all those little boxes – those are all booths. They could be 10x10s, 10x30s, 40x40s, etc. and the Fern contractor has to go through and – literally with a tape measure – mark the entire floor. He has to figure out all of the aisles, all of the booth sizes, and he marks them so that when the exhibitors start arriving they can find their booth – their space on that bare piece of concrete,” says Harris.

As it measures, Fern places at each booth space metal pipes holding black drapes and a placard displaying the exhibitor’s name and booth number. Island booth spaces are marked by tape and chalk booth number on the concrete.

It quickly starts to come together.

Fern delivers to the booth spaces any advanced freight shipped to the show. And the company is responsible for producing all the signage Advanstar designs for the entrances, lobbies and exhibit halls. There is a staggering number of aisle signs this year: 115 versus 40 in 2011, to keep all attendees oriented in a show that’s been newly segmented into product and lifestyle Marketplaces.

“We wanted to be very clear where each Marketplace was,” says Harris. “If you walk into an exhibit hall and you look into the ceiling, you can see exactly where the Tire & Wheel Marketplace is, exactly where Gear & Apparel is, Business Services, etc. We ended up running a double row of aisle signs. Then there are hallway signs, You Are Here signs, lots of visual elements.”

Fern itself brings roughly 100 trucks to the show, all filled with signage, exhibit materials, Learning Experience furniture for the seminars, and other items that make Dealer Expo the visually dramatic show that it becomes.

Exhibitors either work with the transportation company with which Advanstar has contracted, or they move in themselves. A marshalling yard allows the exhibitors to get in line to drive about a mile to one of the convention center’s 50 to 60 docks.

Companies with large or complicated exhibits arrive earlier in the week to begin the setup process. Most other exhibitors show up Thursday (known among show management as “the crazy day”), when Advanstar works with the police to shut down an entire lane on Maryland St. to facilitate easier unloading of all of the furniture, vehicles, parts, accessories and gear you see during Dealer Expo weekend.

On Thursday night, Fern sets all of the aisle carpeting. And then as if by magic, the show opens in all its glory Friday morning. Think that’s impressive? You should see the tear-down on Sunday!