Bottom lineI have a couple of easy quiz questions for you...

  • Are you one of those people who knows what’s in your personal bank account, right down to the last dollar? Or are you more of a “close-enough-for-government-work” type when it comes to your balance?
  • What’s your company’s viewpoint of your exhibit program’s budget? Is it “Do not exceed by a dollar under penalty of death,” or is it “It’s just a guideline”?  

How you answered the two questions above will most likely reveal how you react to show invoices once a trade show concludes.

How much time will you spend reconciling your pre-show exhibit budget, pre-show deposits and payments for show orders with your final invoices? Or do you just assume that your invoices are correct and move on to the next show?

Depending on your personal vs. company’s viewpoint on budget management, closely watching bottom-line spending can be a time drain, an exercise in frustration (especially if you’re not a numbers person), or critical to the survival of your exhibit program – and possibly even your position as budgets tighten.

Looking back at the hundreds of shows where I’ve exhibited in the last 25 years, I’d estimate that at least half of the invoices I received have at least one error on them. To make matters worse, and the more complex the invoice is, the more mistakes I find. My personal approach is to be able to show my client a back-up document that would withstand an audit for each and every major expenditure.

I remember getting one invoice for $20,000 more material handling than I’d expected. As it turned out, the gross weight of the entire truck – not just the freight on it – had been picked off of the certified weight slip and used to charge my client. 

Am I pointing a finger at my vendors that they’re making these errors on purpose?  No, not all errors I find on invoices are in the financial favor of the vendor, but more often than not, that ends up being the case. Is this due to careless bookkeeping or a desire to squeeze a little more profit out of exhibitors who just don't have – or take – the time to audit? I wish I knew.  But I will tell you they’re usually very surprised when I show up telling them that a charge is either missing from my invoice or is less than what is due. I can’t imagine a better way to cement a long-term partnership than by being honest and ethical. 

The vendors whose invoices I find the most errors are from:

  • Exhibit house invoices with no back-up. I audit invoices that show no documentation of the account management hours billed, change order costs, turnkey expenses paid (and usually marked up) for show services including shipping, material handling, and install and dismantle (I & D) labor. Also check storage inventories for discarded items and fuzzy mathematical calculations.
  • Onsite show contractors’ invoices with errors on straight time vs. overtime, mistakes in computing the correct material handling charges based on delivery timing, weight and freight type; missing discounts; and duplicate billings.
  • I & D supervision servicing multiple clients at the same show not prorating – and overbilling – each client for 100% of their travel expenses, per diem and labor hours.
  • Transportation carriers omitting standard shipping charges on quotes i.e. fuel surcharges, detention (wait) time, and weight minimums. 

Other general surcharges to keep an eye out for include:

  • Credit-card use fees that are illegal in 10 states.
  • Flat percentages charged for electrical, rigging, or I & D materials not quoted, ordered, nor used.
  • Taxes charged on exhibit properties used in another state.
  • Math mistakes in multiplication and addition, and miscalculation of discount percentages.

And time is of the essence. Check your onsite invoices while still at the show, as many contractors won’t fix errors after the show closes.

My best advice: If you don’t have backup documents and can’t explain every line on an invoice to your CFO, you shouldn’t be paying it!

Candy Adams, a.k.a. “The Booth Mom®”, guides exhibitors through the trade show maze to optimize exhibit results and decrease costs using industry best practices. She’s a hands-on, veteran independent trade show exhibit project manager and consultant, specializing in exhibit program audits and exhibit RFPs. She provides exhibit staff “boothmanship” training, exhibit management training, and is an award-winning writer and industry speaker.

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