Detroit's Huntington Place Takes Proactive Approach to Improving Relations With Trade Unions

July 3, 2023
Huntington Place

Skilled trade unions are critical to the successful execution of meetings and trade shows at U.S. convention venues. While working with organized labor such as teamsters, carpenters, electricians, stagehands and sound technicians at event venues can come with their fair share of complexities, these groups of skilled professionals can also serve as valuable partners in ensuring a successful event experience for exhibitors and attendees alike. 

In its ongoing mission to be a leader in the meeting and convention venue space, Detroit’s Huntington Place has been busy launching proactive measures to improve its relations with trade unions in the venue. These include participation in future workforce development, quarterly meetings with union leadership and the newly created position of public safety operations manager, who serves as a liaison between union labor and venue management for day-to-day operations in event labor services on exhibit hall floors and dock locations.

“Union relations is always a top priority for me as a general manager, but also for ASM Global overall as we understand the critical nature of working with all the skilled trades,” said Karen Totaro, general manager for Huntington Place/ASM Global. “Our team focuses on communication as a key aspect of any successful relationship. The more correct information we can share, the more positive impacts for our clients.” 

To ensure good working relationships with skilled labor in the venue, Public Safety Supervisor Matt Lancaster was recently promoted to public safety operations manager, responsible for monitoring exhibit halls and dock areas during events; educating contractors on show move-in and move-out processes; quality control of exhibit hall floor space and dock areas; and facilitating collaborative relationships between customers, contractors and vendors. Already having strong and established relationships with labor unions, he works closely with general service contractors and their union labor to develop strategies and policies associated with maintaining a safe and secure venue environment, according to Huntington Place officials.

“His role is to ensure he knows what is happening on the floor and docks at all times, [and he] shares info at all briefings for labor prior to a show moving in or out,” Totaro explained. “He works with everyone from Teamsters on the dock to carpenters building booths to stagehands building out a production, etc. The teams now call our person when they need help figuring out a truck bay issue or needing access to a location, etc.”

She continued, “Matt recently told me the union teams are all starting to call him directly now when they need help with something on the show floor or on the dock — success! We are already way ahead of all I hoped for by simply hearing that the communication is indeed happening and that Matt respects their roles and they respect Matt’s role, and both are optimizing that communication. I love it when we make magic happen — through a lot of hard work.” 

According to Huntington Place officials, quarterly meetings, including collaborative agendas with labor and management, are now held regularly. Several new amenities for labor have been established in the venue, including renovated offices back-of-house with a break room and smoking areas with benches and heaters outside the exhibit hall docks in two locations. Additionally, a new protocol for trouble reports includes a response requirement from management within 24 hours or the next business day. 

“The relationship that has been established in such a short period of time between Matt and our partners in union labor exemplifies how we operate as a unified team here at Huntington Place,” said Marlon Wilson, director of public safety for Huntington Place/ASM Global. “We are all focused on one mission, to provide our visitors and clients with the very best guest experience.”

He added, “Matt has played a critical role in the success of Huntington Place for many years and in his new position, allows the center to continue to improve upon the strong relationships within our community.”  

Most exciting for Huntington Place staff and union labor are the new student group tours that are coordinated by various union trades along with Lancaster. Recently, the IBEW Local 58, Detroit Workforce for the Future and the Operating Engineers Local 324 brought in students to give them exposure to the skilled trades and encourage them to see trade work as a possible career. 

As a 16-week free training program that introduces high school students to the construction industry, the Detroit Workforce for the Future career readiness and job shadow program is available to Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) at Cody, Osborn, Pershing, Chandler Park Academy, Covenant House Academy and Randolph High Schools. Now in its 6thconsecutive year, the program is made possible by the partnership of construction industry associations, unions, schools and other local agencies that work together to create incentives and inspiration for a cohort of students. Graduates receive complimentary tools, work boots and safety gear and are paid an hourly wage as part of the program.

Students toured the move-in of Automate 2023.

On May 18, a group of 16 students toured the move-in of Automate 2023, which ran May 23-25 at Huntington Place with 28,000 attendees — the largest trade show to date in the show’s 22-year history. Conversations were facilitated between students and laborers from IBEW, Operating Engineers, Iron Workers and Carpenters setting up the event, which allowed students to see the construction of Automate’s 800 exhibits firsthand. 

“We know how critical our skilled trades are to the success of our shows, [and] we know it has been a challenge for all trades to attract that next generation into the vast training programs,” Totaro said. “We took this as a challenge, [asking] ‘how can we help?’ We have opened our doors to all the unions to bring in tours, school groups and apprentices to see a show being built or dismantled so they see the big picture of what the various trades do. It’s a fun atmosphere, and if we can engage the next generation into considering a trade program, then we are eager to assist.” 

According to Totaro, building great relationships with skilled trade unions is something any venue can achieve. She suggests starting with simple steps and then developing and building on them as the relationships develop. 

“We began by hosting quarterly meetings with all the event-based unions, business agents and stewards,” Totaro explained. “We provided lunch and had some of our key department heads sharing info. Our director of sales talked about the big picture year ahead, our director of events shared shows coming up within the next three months, and our director of operations talked about needing everyone’s help on controlling damage and [providing] reminders, [such as] no carts in the public spaces, etc.”

She added, “The meetings are informal, Q & A-style, with the intent of ensuring great communication both ways. Plus, we eat and laugh a lot.” 

The team at Huntington Place also makes sure to listen to all parties to find out what is missing to ensure a better experience for the unions, venue clients and their exhibitors, and they spend time on ensuring the collaborative relationships run the full spectrum. 

“We make sure we bring clients, exhibitors, contractors and union teams together to work out any concerns or help educate on roles, etc.,” Totaro said. “The biggest takeaway we had and continue to have is always about communication. You can never over-communicate, so keep sharing information — information is king!” 

To learn more about union labor at Huntington Place, go here.

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