Stuffing the ballot box, Chicago style

October 29, 2009 1:14:51 PM PDT
Vote early and often. That was the message sent by the man who runs McCormick Place in an email to an untold number of people asking them to vote in an online poll on whether Orlando should steal away one of Chicago's longest-running conventions. "Orlando was winning before the Chicago people got involved," said Don Loepp, managing editor of Plastics News, a trade publication for the plastics industry. Loepp and his team knew something was up last Tuesday or Wednesday when responses to their sleepy and unscientific poll increased to record levels. It turns out many of the more than 2,000 responses to the poll were generated by an email blast and LinkedIn post sent by Juan Ochoa, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which runs McCormick Place and the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Check out Ochoa's email (PDF)

"One of the largest and longest-running trade shows in Chicago -- NPE: The Plastics Show at McCormick Place -- is considering leaving our city and moving to Orlando in 2012. The City needs your help in keeping this major trade show here," Ochoa wrote. The e-mail also provided a direct link to the Plastics News poll.

"It was a quick, easy and fun way to show enthusiasm for Chicago," Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesperson Meghan Risch told ABC 7.

The get out the vote effort worked for Chicago, which handily beat Orlando 68%-to-31%. The grand poo-bah of the Plastics News poll says while the vote rigging doesn't bother him, the effort ignored a key reason conventions are fleeing Chicago.

"The number one reason conventions like ours move is because of cost," Loepp said.

Plastics News sent ABC7 a recent letter from an exhibitor at the NPE convention at McCormick Place in June. The exhibitor ordered four cases of pop for his booth. The bill totaled $354.39. Here's the breakdown:

  • $254 for the Pepsi products,
  • a 21% service charge,
  • 10.25% state sales tax,
  • 3% Chicago soft drink tax,
  • a tax on the service charge and a food and beverage tax.
  • Government taxes, the exhibitor said, totaled $38.06.

    "Now, a nice man in a tuxedo delivered the Pepsi, along with a couple of buckets of ice and a few cups," wrote Tim Hanrahan, CEO of Erema North America. "Good service? Sure, but not worth $345.39."

    The four cases of pop could have been purchased for roughly $30 at a local grocery store.

    A spokesperson for McCormick Place defended the steep price for pop. "If you go to a routine vending machine it cost you $1 to $2 to vend a soda bottle and then another $1.50 for staff to deliver to the booth. This price includes receiving, warehouse, staff and delivery," Mary Kay Marquisos wrote in an e-mail to ABC 7. "This charge is not dissimilar to what you would pay at a hotel or another convention center."

    Regardless of the rationale, people in the plastics industry say it's hard to stomach those prices -- not to mention even holding a convention in a pricey town like ours -- at a time when the industry is cutting costs and laying-off workers. Chicago won the online vote, but may very well lose the plastics show.


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