Saturday, 30 September 2006 17:00

NACE has become the industry gathering place

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Count Ben Steinman as a true NACE fan.

As the 2006 International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE) opens in Las Vegas, Nevada, this November, Steinman will be there - just as he has been at the 23 NACE shows that preceded it. 

Behind the scenes at NACE

In many ways, NACE is an organ- izational marvel. A shuttle bus is nearly always waiting for attendees when they need one; seminars start and end on time; meals - sometimes for thousands of people - get served without a hitch.

But Galen Poss can tell you about several instances where things - at least below the surface - weren't going exactly as planned. Poss, now president of Hanley-Wood Exhibitions which manages the NACE show and who has been its key organizer since the event was founded, has several tales of NACE near-calamities.

There was the time, for example, the radio-controlled "spacecraft" hovering above attendees "got loose in the hall" and was essentially moving around uncontrolled. Or the electrical short during the 1992 NACE in Atlanta that almost forced the evacuation of thousands of people who just been served lunch as a NACE 10th anniversary program was in progress.

In 2000 in Orlando, Florida, an evacuation did become necessary. On Sunday afternoon about an hour prior to the show's close, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the convention center. Fortunately, it came at a generally quiet time on the show floor, making it disruptive to show organizers and exhibitors but few attendees.

Poss said one of the more humorous unplanned NACE moments happened the year NACE Chairman Jerry Kottschade, a Minnesota shop owner, was riding the world's largest elephant to lead NACE attendees from the opening session to the opening of the exhibition hall.

"He was making a short speech and said something like, 'Isn't it great that our industry can be so successful in a down economy,'" Poss recalls. "Well, the word 'down' was an 'action word' for the elephant, and it proceeded to start to sit down. And as it lowers its back haunches, all of a sudden, Jerry finds himself looking up at the ceiling. The trainer was down there trying to stop the elephant from sitting down. That was definitely a bit of an interesting moment."

"Probably the biggest thing that keeps me coming back year after year is that it recharges my batteries," said Steinman, owner of Ben's Auto Body in Mexico, Missouri. "It's so easy to get into a rut, doing the same thing every day, day in and day out. Attending NACE gives you a different, fresh perspective on the industry. It kind of gives you a tune-up. It keeps me motivated and charged-up."

Steinman is not alone. Almost two dozen of the 1,573 attendees at the very first NACE, held in Nashville, Tennessee, back in 1983, have attended the event every year since. Thousands of others have become later "converts," filling the classrooms and trade show aisles at NACE every year as it moved to Denver, Dallas, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New Orleans and Orlando.

Here's a look back at the history of the event, and why it's become an annual gathering for so many in the industry.

Modest beginnings

"Autobody Congress draws a record- breaking attendance," reads the front-page headline in one of the industry's trade magazines in December 1983, just weeks after the first NACE was held in Nashville. The event "shattered all records for attendance at national collision repair events," the article goes on, as more than 1,500 people from 42 states and Canada were there.

The numbers reported in the article were a welcome relief for organizers of the 3-day event who were banking on the idea that a new national collision repair trade show could succeed.

"We got together and took a chance," recalls Jack Caldwell, a California shop owner who served as chairman of NACE later in the 1980s. "It was definitely a financial risk for the two associations."

Those two associations, the Independent Automotive Service Association (IASA) and the Automotive Service Councils (ASC), which in the past had each had their own conventions, were able to convince 74 companies to take a chance as well by buying a total of just over 17,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space at that first show. Then they collectively held their breath to see if the industry would show up.

And show up they did. An attendance of 1,500 seems modest by today's standards, but given that most of those people had never attended a major convention or trade show, it was a remarkable turn-out. Among other things, the event included the premier of the sixth class in I-CAR's fledgling course offerings was held, marking the first time many of the 76 people in the room had taken an I-CAR course.

"Back in those early days, before the paint companies and everyone started offering training, there was almost no where else to get education other than NACE," said Don Peers, now a retired Nebraska shop owner who has attended every NACE. "One of the things I also remember from those early years were the 'Idea Fairs.' Those allowed us to exchange some great ideas."

Peers said even the Nashville location, where NACE was held in both 1983 and 1986, made it a memorable event for many.

"I'd never in my life been anyplace like that Opryland Hotel," Peers said. "Man, for an old farm boy from Nebraska, it was a pretty amazing place."

As impressive as that first show was, the growth over the coming years was phenomenal. Attendance doubled the following year, and had doubled again to 6,277 by 1986. The exhibit hall had grown to include 192 companies and nearly 50,000 sq. ft.

Big-name speakers, stars

And then came Vegas.

"I was the only one who predicted there'd be 10,000 people there," Caldwell said of the 1987 show.

And he was right. The show also added 50 more exhibiting companies.

"There was a lot of new equipment and technology in the industry in those days, and NACE was where you could go see all that cutting-edge technology," Peers said.

But the growth continued well into the 1990s, with the show setting new attendance records each time it returned to Las Vegas: 22,517 attendees in 1991, 35,800 in 1994, and just over 41,000 in 1997, when the show also hit a peak of 656 exhibitors in a massive 277,500-sq.-ft. trade show.


{mospagebreak}One of the positive outcomes of NACE's growth has been the show's ability to bring in some of the country's most-coveted keynote speakers. They've ranged from political heavy-hitters like George Bush (2002) and Elizabeth Dole (1997) to sports legends like Fran Tarkenton (1994) and Lou Holtz (1992). Others came from the media world, such as Larry King (1998), Bill O'Reilly (2003) or George Stephanopoulos (1999).

"It's great being able to see people like Colin Powell (1996) or G. Gordon Liddy (1990) - that guy ran a chill up your spine," Peers said. "I'm not big on movie stars or singers or stuff like that, but anytime you get to see any of those people live, it's impressive. If [Ret. Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf (1995) announced that day he needed 1,000 volunteers right now to go into combat, I would have followed him out the door."

The chairman's address

But while most of these entertainers and keynote speakers offered little or no comments specifically about the collision repair industry, the NACE chairmen have. For the first three years, NACE was co- chaired by two industry leaders, one from each of the two associations that established the event. But by 1986, when the show was being sponsored solely by the Automotive Service Association (ASA), responsibility for welcoming NACE attendees and offering a "state of the industry" address was placed in the hands of a single NACE chairman, generally chosen from among ASA's Collision Operations Committee.

California shop owner Caldwell said he still occasionally has someone he doesn't know at an industry event come up to him and comment on his 1989 chairman's address in which he called for an end to "funny time and funny rates."

"I've always been one who likes to tell it the way it is," Caldwell said. "I wrote that speech, although I hadn't written the one I gave as chairman the year before. I'd needed help with that one, and it was kind of blah as far I'm concerned. But that one in 1989 I wrote myself."

Other NACE chairman have voiced similar strong positions on industry issues. In 1995, Illinois shop owner Russ Verona called for the elimination of non-OEM parts in the estimating databases if such parts were not CAPA-certified. In 2001, NACE Chairman Chris Dameron criticized Allstate's purchase of Sterling Collision Centers, calling it a conflict of interest and saying repairers don't sell insurance and insurers shouldn't repair cars.

More recently, ASA and NACE organizers have reined in the chairman's address, focusing it more on the show itself and on general themes rather than commenting on industry issues. It's part of an effort to make the event more "all-inclusive" and to avoid making insurers feel unwelcome, show organizers say.

Caldwell, for one, said it's a change that he doesn't agree with.

"I'd rather see the guys tell it like it is," he said.

What's the draw?

Peers says it's still the trade show that attracts many people hoping to see what's new and to possibly save some money thanks to show specials.

"Almost every year, there's that one booth that astounds everybody," Peers said. "I remember the year 3M had a live demonstration of their spray masking system. They actually had a car there and they'd spray it and rinse it off in the trade show. Man, talk about a crowd-drawer. That was really something, to think you could spray something on the car to keep overspray off it."

Others come back year after year for the seminars and panel discussions that have grown both in number and diversity.

Shop owner Steinman said that in addition to the training and the exhibit hall - which now includes a live demonstration area - he attends NACE every year for the opportunity it offers to network with top shops around the country.

And Massachusetts shop owner Chuck Sulkala, another of those who will attend his 24th NACE this year, said he goes every year because NACE has become the industry's annual meeting place, with virtually every other industry organization holding meetings or conferences in conjunction with NACE.

NACE has continued to evolve and change. Not everyone sees all the changes as positive. But most of those who have seen the show grow and develop over 23 years say the event's core mission is still the same.

"It's all about education and communication," Peers says. "I think that's really the bottom line on it. Every year there's just something that excites me about NACE. I just get excited talking about it. I can't believe a young shop owner wouldn't want to go to that. Man, so much to see and learn…"

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.


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