Stuck in Customs

We had a garbled mess of empty brackets and wires that looked as if some gang had looted our security cameras from a security show – an irony not lost on me.

Plan A

Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's an airfreight crate, an unlisted box of pencils, and a customs officer. If you've done any international exhibiting, you know where this is headed, don't you?

I'm an international project manager for Sistemas de Expositión, an exhibit house in Mexico, and last year I had a safety and security show in Guadalajara for an important Spanish client that sells and installs motion-activated security cameras. The client, which already has a sizable presence in Europe, was expanding into the Americas and needed a successful showing. I oversaw the exhibit's design and fabrication, and all the client had to do was airfreight me a small crate containing the company's products and some branded office supplies.


Two days before the show, my crew and I began installation as planned. We'd run the wires, laid the carpet, and hung the graphics. Perfecto. It wasn't until setup was nearly complete that we noticed something amiss. The crate storing the 20 motion-activated devices that needed to be wired and mounted to the walls was nowhere to be found. We searched the entire area, assuming it had been accidentally delivered to a neighboring booth. Nada. I started to get worried.

Instead of a highly sophisticated and polished exhibit, we had a garbled mess of empty brackets and dangling wires that looked as if some gang of cat burglars had looted our security cameras from a security show – an irony that was not lost on me. Worse yet, the show was less than 48 hours away, which meant I needed to sort this out muy rapido.


Plan B

After confirming with the loading docks that the missing crate had never arrived, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was locked down in some customs warehouse. Luckily, I know a guy who knows a guy. My guy is a customs broker with a contact in the state tax department warehouse in Mexico. I asked my guy to ask his guy to see if he could find our missing freight. In the meantime, in case the crate never materialized, I needed to do something to make the exhibit look less like Danny Ocean's crew had paid it a midnight visit.

I found a local printer and asked it to quickly whip up some Sintra-panel graphics with the company's messaging for the forsaken walls. By the next day, I had the brackets removed and slapped up the new graphics using hook-and-loop fastener. While the exhibit didn't look like a second-grader was put in charge of the decor, it was certainly no Kandinsky either. But at least the space no longer looked as if the installation team had gone on strike in the middle of setup.

Shortly after I mentally patted myself on the back, I got a call from the customs broker with some good news – and some bad news. The good news was he'd located our crate in customs. Thank goodness! The bad news was that the shipment wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.

Apparently, my client's shipping manifest had failed to account for four unbranded pencils. Getting the crate out of Spain? No problema. Getting it into Mexico, though, was turning out to be a huge pain in el trasero. Mexico is very protective of some suppliers, and evidently one of them peddles yellow No. 2 pencils.


Unfortunately, some customs agents in Mexico are notorious for seizing shipments over any quibble in the paperwork because they know they can supplement their salaries by using bribes to help get freight moving again. So, for a sizable sum of cash to cover "additional taxes," a "rush fee," and a generous "tip" to make it all worth the customs agent's time, our freight could be on its way.

We didn't really have any choice but to pay. Except it was 8 p.m. on a Friday, which meant banks were closed until Monday – two days too late to do us any good. We didn't have the cash on hand, and the "fees" were significantly over my daily ATM withdrawal limit. My broker friend, however, offered to cover the costs if we agreed to wire him the money first thing on Monday. I told him to just get that crate out of customs, and he would get the dinero.


Relieved, I notified the crew that we were back to Plan A, and the team started tearing down the hastily contrived graphics and rehanging the mounting brackets. The delivery truck with our client's crate arrived about two hours later, and we worked late into the night wiring and installing the security cameras. By first light, everything was secure and show ready.

While the replacement graphics would have worked as a last resort, the show would not have been the success the client was looking for. In the end, by understanding the local customs and having a contact in a key position, we found a way to get those cameras – and pencils – moving again and saved our client from an investment that would have been like a broken pencil: totally pointless.

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