Aisles of Smiles

March 3rd, 2011

By Kevin Wilson

Having attended the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, I’d like to think I’ve seen it all. Every year, the show features a lot of exhibitors, cool customs rides and miles of aisles full of new products. This year had all the usual SEMA Show elements, with one added feature I haven’t seen in nearly two years, smiles.

For the past two years, from the looks of things on the show floor, it was obvious that the SEMA Show was shrinking, mainly due to the state of the economy. While general attendance was up, according to SEMA figures, buyers were few and far between, according to those manning the booths.

The 2008 Show was the first indicator that things were not business as usual. Ironically, the opening day of the show fell on Election Day so, naturally, people were apprehensive about both the economy and the changes in Washington. By the 2009 show, the full effect of the recession was obvious with several companies conspicuously absent that had been regulars at the show for decades. While foot traffic was still good, sparking some hope in the hearts of exhibitors, actual buyers were, again, few and far between.

So, armed with two years of weak business, and little light at the end of the economic tunnel, I was more than pleasantly surprised at this year’s show. From the opening day, the aisles were packed with attendees and low and behold, so were the exhibitor booths. And more importantly, the people in those booths were smiling…go figure.

As part of my SEMA ritual of a week’s worth of walking the show, shaking hands, and catching up with old acquaintances you only see once a year, I have made it a point to take a straw poll—my own automotive aftermarket equivalent of the “state of the union” from the business side. Last year’s doom and gloom was replaced with smiles on the faces of exhibitors who said not only were their booths busy, but the quality of the visitors had improved dramatically. And surprisingly, most were back to doing real business, which is what the SEMA Show is all about in the first place.

Having worked the exhibitor side during my brief stint as the director of marketing for a large automotive aftermarket manufacturer, I can tell you the SEMA Show represents a huge expense to everyone who exhibits. Booth space isn’t cheap and the costs of not only setting up the booth and manning it are steep as well. You only hope your return on investment, ie sales, will offset the costs of the show, which also includes transportation, food, and lodging for the staff.

Based on my straw poll, and the fact I talked with folks from the diesel and traditional performance and automotive side of the market, I can honestly say there is a glimmer of hope that the economy is coming back, based on the fact exhibitors are smiling again at SEMA.

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