When (or if) you think of Northwest Arkansas, it may be in terms of the celebrated Arkansas Razorbacks athletics, a part of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville main campus – perennial contenders in Southeastern Conference contests in a variety of sports disciplines. More people around the globe recognize it as home to the world’s largest retail chain, Wal-Mart. What probably doesn’t come to mind is a freight shipping company that is a powerhouse in trade show and special event shipping serving both domestic and international markets. Located so far from the mega convention centers like Las Vegas, Orlando and Chicago, how did Airways Freight become known as one of the top exhibit freight specialists in the trade show shipping world?
The early ‘90’s of the last century was a golden age for trade shows. The computer industry was skyrocketing for manufacturers of both business and personal computing hardware. New software companies were sprouting up weekly. Seemingly anything computer-related was given the green light by investors, and of course, all of these new start-ups needed to promote their products and services through face-to-face marketing – most often trade shows. Thus was born the era of the super-size trade show where thousands of exhibiting companies would gather at shows like COMDEX and PC Expo hoping to catch the eye of the buying public. No expense was spared, and marketing budgets saw no top end.
It was at this time that Airways Freight Corporation was transitioning from a freight forwarder who specialized in highly expedited freight – primarily industrial in nature – and looking at expanding into other markets. Realizing that trade shows were similar in various aspects to other time-sensitive shipping in the manner of movement, but lacking a knowledge of the unique blend of logistics, competing interests and politics involved in U.S. tradeshows, the decision was made that an education best learned on the road was required.
Just prior to the computer boom, trade shows were alive and well in other industries such as building, medical, and aerospace. Serving those exhibitors was just a handful of specialized shipping forwarders who characterized their services with an air which bordered on the mystical. Special events coordinators were led to believe that their shipments would somehow enter a black hole with disastrous consequences awaiting them should XYZ company not be chosen as the carrier of choice for an exhibitor’s trade show goods. This led to extreme over-pricing, while fewer choices in shipping companies often meant sacrificing service with victimized exhibitors feeling they had little recourse. Conditions became increasingly worse for computer show corporate planners as the old guard shipping companies took advantage – realizing cost was no object in the exhibitors’ zeal to get their goods to market.
The Airways strategy for breaking into the trade show market was to learn every phase of the tradeshow industry, both as a show organizer’s official shipping contractor, working with exhibitors on a direct basis, and finally in developing methods of working in harmony with – and not against – the unions and other contractors who have ultimate control of the shipping process at the convention halls. Next was to introduce fairness to the exhibitor, both in pricing and in service – a task that not only brought push back from many competitors, but surprisingly – from the exhibitors themselves. With the belief ingrained in the minds of the typical exhibiting company that only high prices would ensure proper care of their valuable goods to a trade show, many were wary of the lower shipping rates introduced by Airways at the time. Through exhibitor education and vigilance to delivering performance above profit Airways was able to gain trust and confidence, which quickly translated to loyalty.
The trade show community is huge but very tight-knit. Failures on the part of service providers become wide-spread knowledge on a scarily rapid basis. Fortunately for Airways, the reverse was also true, and in short order, Airways was becoming a household name in the industry, recommended by exhibitors of both large and small companies.
From there, Airways continued to advocate for better rates and service on behalf of the exhibitor through various industry affiliations such as IELA, ESCA, IAEE, E2MA and HCEA. Today, Airways is “whole hog” in favor of their exhibitor following and is widely hailed as the company of choice for the very best in trade show and special events shipping.
By Mike Nimmo, Director of Marketing for Airways Freight Corporation