Elizabeth, New Jersey, September 9, 2015 - Six months after the resolution of the lengthy labor dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ports on the West Coast of the United States, as well as other major ports around the country, continue to experience congestion that is resulting in significant delays in shipments destined for trade shows.

Trade show managers and exhibitors face ongoing concerns about the congestion that is becoming increasingly common at the nation's largest ports. Container volume has steadily increased over the past two years and is now at an all-time high on the East Coast. Enormous vessels, carrying more than twice the average number of containers in the past, are clogging up the resources of the ports, which were designed for the smaller cargo ships of years before. This cargo spike is creating daily delays in the loading and unloading of freight. Truck drivers are waiting as long as 6-8 hours for containers, as the elevated volume burdens the freight handling and inspection processes. Long truck lines extending for a mile or two are frequently seen at Port Newark/Elizabeth, and similar delays are occurring in Los Angeles and other ports. The number of drivers is dropping, since many of them are becoming dismayed by these problems that are causing a pinch in their own pockets.

Outdated port infrastructure is also a contributing factor as well as chassis shortage issues. Wheeled chassis is the equipment used to transport containers. This combination of factors is continuing to create port congestion, placing pressure on the carriers and the brokers to ensure containers are released at the last minute to make a show's deadlines.

According to Phil Hobson, President of Phoenix International Business Logistics (PIBL), "Show managers , exhibitors and display design companies are asking me if it's back to normal in the aftermath of the West Coast strike. I have to tell them that while the West Coast no longer suffers from the extreme gridlock conditions, our country's ports are still tremendously strained. And this congestion is continuing to impact trade show shipments coming into the United States. We are coping with huge vessels arriving in ports with infrastructure that is not equipped to handle the bigger volume efficiently. There are still shortages of chassis. In addition, we also have truck driver shortages. I am advising trade show managers to alert international exhibitors about the potential delays with sea freight entering the United States. In turn, these managers are now encouraging exhibitors to find a Customs Broker that is highly experienced with trade shows, so an exhibitor is well-informed about the timing and routing now required for on-time shipments."

More specifically, Mr. Hobson explains, "PIBL works with international exhibitors at scores of shows and we've been developing new guidelines for the shipment of cargo by sea. In the past, full container shipments could arrive 8 days before a show's move-in date and you could reasonably expect the container to clear Customs and be delivered by the target date. Today, we have to add on 3-5 days to that original timing in order to achieve the same expected outcome - a 99.9% chance of success for on-time arrival at the show site. For LCL (less than container load) shipments to have that same success rate, we're now telling customers that exhibits should arrive 20-25 days in advance of the move-in date.

"We will always work to our maximum capacity to get shipments cleared in time for a show, even with shorter-than-ideal schedules and port delays. We certainly maintain an outstanding on-time success rate. But we do want to share with the trade show importing community the increasing importance of shipping earlier. And it's even more vital now to choose an experienced Customs broker who can navigate trade show conditions. While we certainly pull off our share of miracles, it's getting more challenging every day. The strike may have ended but the congestion remains."

There's also the matter of additional costs associated with containers arriving earlier, such as storage and chassis rental expenses. According to Mr. Hobson, "It's a risk-reward relationship when you ship exhibits by sea to the U.S. in today's port climate. Freight forwarders who handle trade show shipments are now competing with large retailers like Walmart for drivers. We know that missing a trade show is an unthinkable, costly occurrence, while the addition of storage expenses is a new budgetary concern. Exhibitors are definitely facing some new realities about trade show shipments." As the nation works towards making the investment required to improve port infrastructure, as well as efforts to address the chassis and driver issues, it's up to the trade show industry to adapt to the shipment delays being caused by the current state of port congestion. Mr. Hobson gives these words of advice:

  • Get in touch very early with your show's appointed freight forwarder or a U.S. Customs Broker who is a trade show specialist.
  • Understand the costs associated with storage and chassis rental if you're being advised to ship earlier than in prior years. While it may increase your budget, it may be a necessary step to ensure on-time exhibit arrival.
  • Consider air options when possible.

Phoenix International Business Logistics