Bad Blood

Ever hear the one about the unions and the convention bureau?

But compared to our major rival, Kansas City, St. Louis is struggling. The cities bid annually on roughly the same number of "citywide" conventions. (That's a group that books more than 1,000 hotel room nights.) Yet Kansas City managed to bait and net 42 percent of those bids last year, while St. Louis logged between 25 and 30 percent.

In the past, CVC officials blamed sagging business on the lack of a headquarter hotel. That long-awaited property, the Renaissance, opened for business in 2003 but has struggled to get the CVC to fill its beds ever since.

Bob Bedell, the CVC president from 1993 to 2002 who promised to double the city's number of larger conventions if the hotel was built, declined to comment on his St. Louis tenure. But Bill Bohde, vice president of convention sales under Bedell, says it was customers' perceptions of and complaints about organized labor that turned off perspective clients.

"I give Kitty Ratcliffe a ton of credit for taking on the challenge," says Bohde, who now heads up sales at the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association. "That is not an easy situation to put yourself into."

For her part, Ratcliffe has made a number of sweeping changes, including beefing up the CVC's Washington, D.C., sales office and forming a sales team to court lucrative corporate meetings. She's also overhauled the marketing department and assembled a group of advertising gurus from top-flight St. Louis companies (including Maritz and Anheuser-Busch) to develop St. Louis' "brand."

"How does the guy who works at the gas station articulate who we are if someone asks: 'What's St. Louis about? Why do you like it there?'" Ratcliffe explains. "It's not a tag line. It's not a fancy jingle. It's the basic DNA of a community."

Robert Bray, general manager of the Renaissance and a CVC commissioner, lauds Ratcliffe's results so far. "The climate over there is no longer 'sit-around-and-wait-for-the-phone-to-ring,'" he says. "And Kitty Ratcliffe is not afraid to tackle some very, very complicated issues — like the unions."

Labor leaders, though, fear Ratcliffe wants to banish them completely and that the Center is moving toward a right-to-work mindset. Says the Stagehands' Beckman: "You get a stranger in there and she thinks she's going to change the whole world."

"This is not about busting the unions," counters Ratcliffe. "It is about having work rules that make sense and that are competitive so we can bring more business to this community."

Conventioneers arriving at America's Center quickly learn the building's rule of thumb: Hands off!

Unless it's your own product — guns for a gun show, say — you can't touch the nuts and bolts that will support your booth, no matter whether you were allowed to assemble it yourself at last year's gathering in San Antonio, or the year prior in Nashville.

America's Center is a union shop, with no fewer than six locals sharing every last minute of the set-up and tear-down work. Only Chicago and Philadelphia are known to house so many labor organizations under one roof.

In St. Louis it's the Teamsters (Local 600) who haul exhibit freight with forklifts and the IBEW (Local 1) who installs all electrical devices. The Decorators & Displaymen (Local 39) lay carpeting, hoist curtains and build registration counters. They and the Carpenters' Union (Local 47) erect exhibitors' booths together.

Need lighting rigged in the Edward Jones Dome? That's a Stagehand's job. How about a screen for a workshop? You must hire a Projectionist.

Observers of a St. Louis trade-show set-up can see that the real division of labor is much more complicated than that, though. Say the freight belongs to the contractor producing the show: The Decorators or Carpenters get to push it off the truck before the Teamsters can haul it to the booth. What if a customer wants its main-stage entertainment filmed? The IBEW and the Stagehands alternate that job on a show-by-show basis.

The labor leaders admit that the guidelines can seem labyrinthine to the layperson. "But let me tell you," says Frank Condellire, of the Decorators, "if you don't have rules, you've got total chaos. If the customers were doing everything, it'd be like a flea market. And safety would be an issue."

The unions' jurisdictions hark back to the Center's founding in 1977. In those days, organized labor enjoyed prominent footing at the facility. One of the old exhibit halls was even named "Labor" in honor of contributions made when the building budget fell short. That goodwill endured for the better part of the 1980s, when business was brisk.

But labor relations between the Center and its locals reached an all-time low in the early 1990s. Fewer customers were coming to town, causing the brother unions to bicker like schoolyard boys. "We'd fight over who was going to move a box," remembers Terry Nelson, the Carpenters' Union's executive secretary.

To keep the peace, then-Mayor Vincent Schoemehl appointed union kingpin Bob Kelley to the CVC's board. For six years Kelley tried to broker a labor agreement between the Center and its locals. The idea was to prevent strikes and devise a dispute-resolution system to squelch fighting in front of customers.

The Stagehands' Jack Beckman and his audiovisual counterparts signed onto the pact, as did the Carpenters' Nelson. "I realized we could huff and puff and blow all we want, but the customers were making serious statements that they weren't going to come here and do business anymore," Nelson explains. "I know it sounds very strange coming out of a union leader's mouth, but we moved very strongly toward making good business decisions."

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