After two very slow years at the Rental Show, it was quite a different story this time around. The attendance numbers have yet to be released as we go to press, but like the old Bob Dylan song that says “you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” you don't need to know the attendance figures to know this was a significantly different rental trade show than what we saw the past two years.
All you had to do was walk the floor. Instead of seeing almost empty aisles this year there were lots of people in the aisles. All you had to do was ask manufacturers at the end of a day how their day went and have them smile and tell you buying was solid and leads were plentiful. The past two years if you closed your eyes, it would be so quiet, you could almost go to sleep. This year, you'd hear the buzz of conversation.
Asking rental people at the show how business was, people still sometimes hesitated a bit. “Fantastic” was not exactly the sentiment coming out of peoples' mouths, but “better than last year” was a common refrain.
During the past couple of years, I heard a number of exhibitors wonder if the trade show era was ending and if the ARA show had outlived its usefulness. People would say that now information about equipment was so much more accessible, who needs to walk around a show floor to see it. I strongly disagreed with that sentiment and disagree with it even more after this year's show. The shows were down the past two years because of the economy. During the past two years when obviously the rental industry was in a severe downturn, few people were buying equipment and people either didn't want to spend the money to go to the Rental Show or didn't want to be away from their businesses during such difficult times. We've been through these cycles before.
Is location a big part of it? I'm not so sure. Yes people prefer Las Vegas to Atlanta, but does anybody remember the Atlanta show in the mid-90s after the '92-'94 recession? It was one of the best ARA shows in history because market conditions were right for it.
There is still something about walking around the show floor and seeing a lot of equipment. While there are people now who buy cars online, I'm one of the old-fashioned people who like to test drive and see the car I want to buy. I want to feel how it turns the corners and how it feels when I open it up on the freeway. I want to look at it and touch it and smell it. Plenty of rental company owners are the same way about the equipment they buy. And there is still a lot of value in meeting with suppliers, meeting with peers, and learning from the education sessions.
I'm pleased to say this year's show surpassed my expectations. I expected the show to be better than the past couple of years, but not to the degree that it was. A lot of the demand is pent-up replacement need as opposed to a dramatic sense that business is booming, but nonetheless the signs point to a much better direction.
It certainly makes me look forward to next year's show in New Orleans. Is it because I like hanging out in the French Quarter, drinking hurricanes and eating crawfish etouffee? Partly. But I'm also looking forward to a continuing recovery in the rental market.
I hope you take the time to read our cover story this month on the development of the rental market for “low-level” aerial products. Not every rental person we talked to is convinced that aerial work platforms less than 19 feet in height are a strong market, but some are very excited about it and if you read the story you'll see why. They are lightweight enough to be used above the first floor of buildings, they can fit through doorways and on to elevators and are safer than ladders and more maneuverable than scaffolding.
At this point, market demand may not be strong in some areas and segments but to a degree it's because the products are relatively new and a lot of rental customers aren't aware of them. So there's a degree of education that may be involved, just as when the first aerial work platforms came along.
I recommend that you take a look at these products and make educated decisions about whether this is a market niche that will work for your business.