Published here May 2005.


Musings Index

Do Trade Show Exhibits Count as Projects?

Each week we receive a steady stream of Emails from people wanting help, advice or to know about this or that. We try our best to provide answers if the questions seem genuine. However, we draw the line when someone is either looking for the answers to a student assignment or, at the other end of the scale, free consulting help. We are only interested in exchanges that we feel will advance the understanding of project management. The following is just such a case.

Mon, 29 Nov 2004, Michael Hermosillo asks:

Mr. Max:

I have found everything on your website pretty much right on target, thank you. But do you know about Trade Shows/Exhibits?

I work for a general contractor that designs, fabricates, and stores trade show exhibits. Do you have any insights or reference material that is specific to such a fast paced industry? At any one time I could have 15-30 projects on my plate that are all due in less than 30 days; many are 10 days or less. These jobs range from 30-hour to 2500-hour jobs.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Michael Hermosillo

Tue, 30 Nov 2004, Max replies:


The short answer is no I'm afraid that I don't. However, I am well aware that trade shows, exhibits, workshops and seminars are a group of projects that have very distinct features. That is, they all have longer planning/preparation periods than the period of public exposure. So, it is a little difficult to decide where planning ends and production begins. The two heavily overlap.

In your case, I think that what you have is a "job shop" which is very common in industry. You can look upon this type of work as a "service process", or as an erratic flow of "mini-projects". In the former case, you are trying to optimize the production process by smoothing out product orders to minimize production costs. This inevitably means that customers queue in sequence. In the latter case you are trying to optimize delivery service to the customer. This means that there will be times when your staff is either not fully occupied or over committed. Either way, that makes your operation more costly. However, your customers will be more satisfied! The trick is for management to get the right balance between the two.

So much for the theory! In practical terms, and if your environment seems to be chaotic, you might find it useful to take the trouble to assign an extra and independent resource on any one of your "assignments" to document the actual sequence of events and possibly document durations to establish what actually goes on. It's called a work study. You would then be in a position to go a bit further and hold a workshop to ask people: "Here's what we did. Could we do it better?"

The book industry is a good example that generally takes the former view. I've just published a book and what should take only about seven months often takes a year to eighteen months. My book took nine months from start of writing to published product with an on-demand publisher and I was not even happy with that! In your case, your delivery dates are absolute, so you don't have the "service process" option.

If you should try doing a study, I should be very interested in your findings. As far as I am aware, there is very little published on this topic in the context of project management. I'm sure you've probably figured out most of that already, so that's as close as I can get. Still, I hope it helps.


Tue, 30 Nov 2004 Michael Hermosillo makes a final comment:

Mr. Max - thanks for your quick reply; I wasn't sure you would answer at all!

We have done studies here at work and it all boils down to lead-time. Unfortunately, the Sales and Management Team do not know how to use the most powerful word in the Industry: "NO"!

Thank you for your time,


In our view there are many situations where a project is only a project if you decide to make it so – and manage it as such. This especially applies to a stream of "projects" such as that described by Michael.

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