Attendance was down at The Rental Show last week but it certainly wasn't a surprise. Some exhibitor personnel was obviously frustrated as one could walk by exhibits and see a bunch of people wearing the same color shirt standing around talking to each other.
Frustration seemed particularly high in the “heavy equipment” hall, which was separated from the main hall. Although the halls were separated by a very short two-minute walk, it seemed as though a lot of people weren't aware of the presence of the heavy-construction exhibits, which included earthmoving manufacturers such as Bobcat, Deere, JCB and Takeuchi, aerial exhibitors such as Skyjack, Aichi, Genie, Haulotte and Snorkel, and lighter earthmoving players such as Ditch Witch and Vermeer.
For the most part, exhibitors seemed to understand the reasons people stayed home. Most rental companies built up their fleets in recent years, only to see demand plummet as the economy went downhill. Most rental companies now are trying to downsize their fleets rather than add to them, and so had little reason to attend the show. To make matters worse, on the Sunday before the show Atlanta was hit with a snowstorm – strong by Atlanta standards – which led to Delta, the main carrier that serves Atlanta, cancelling more than 400 flights. Some people, faced with travel delays of a day or two, decided not to go.
All of these issues, it should be noted, were not the fault of ARA. Most exhibitors also seemed to understand that, and as we walked the show floor and talked to manufacturers, most felt the same way. The show was well-organized and had plenty of opportunities for education and networking. It is not the ARA's fault that the economy is the way it is, that it snowed at an inopportune time in Atlanta and that rental people around the world are concerned for the future of their businesses and didn't want to take the time or spend the money to be away. Some exhibitors did reasonably well, weren't disappointed with the quality of leads they got, and noted that attendees were primarily decision-makers, with fewer employees and family members tagging along.
I heard a few people on the last day of the show bring up the idea that maybe ARA should take a look at its model and reduce the frequency of its national convention. It will be interesting to see if this idea has legs, but I think it's a bit premature to think that way and I expect the show will continue to serve a vital purpose for the foreseeable future. If the economy is roaring come next February, the show will attract greater numbers. Even if the economy is just beginning to show signs of recovery, attendance will improve. If it takes longer, then the show might suffer for a couple of years. Like everything else right now, patience is needed.
A couple of people at the show were remembering the 1980s when the investment tax credit was on the books and companies were able to write off some of their equipment purchases. Obviously it would take a considerable effort of legislative lobbying to bring that concept on to the national agenda, but it might very well be an idea worth discussing.