LOUISVILLE, Ky.—``Fill 'er up'' may take on a more significant meaning next year for the International Tire and Rubber Association when it links forces with the Service Station Dealers of America (SSDA) under the umbrella of a joint convention and trade show. On April 18, the two organizations announced that the SSDA would join ITRA's World Tire Conference and Exhibition in Louisville in 1998. The annual event is tentatively scheduled at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center April 1-4.
For ITRA—which saw attendance at its just-concluded trade show drop from the previous year—inclusion of the SSDA opens the event to potentially thousands more showgoers as well as additional exhibitors.
The SSDA is a loosely-knit federation of state affiliates. Its more than 18,000 small-business owner/members come from 26 state and regional associations representing service station dealers and repair shop operators in 40 states.
Thoughts of filling the cavernous exposition center next year with an enlivened, bustling, expanded trade show were clearly on the minds of officials from both associations during an interview with TIRE BUSINESS at the recent ITRA show.
Some critics have questioned the seemingly incongruous addition of service station operators to the ITRA venue, long a gathering for retreaders, commercial tire dealers and, in recent years, tire and rubber recycling companies.
Yet, in a press release, ITRA President Bill Babek said the ``partnership should enhance and strengthen ITRA and the SSDA in dealing with issues we face in the daily operations of our businesses.''
The two organizations are joining forces, he told TIRE BUSINESS, ``to take advantage of their many synergies'' and because ``many of the concerns of service station operators are identical to those of tire dealers.''
``Many commercial dealers do mechanical services, as do some service station owners,'' Mr. Babek said, ``so there's much synergy in so many areas. One of the things the ITRA has not addressed, for example, are those tire dealers who do emergency truck repair services. That group is very similar to the service station owners.''
According to ITRA Executive Director Marvin Bozarth, those common concerns also include clean air, clean water, underground storage tanks, tire repair and maintenance, legislative issues and automotive maintenance.
Actually, the two associations have worked together for at least 13 years, especially on government issues. That is due in part to the activities of Roy Littlefield, the ITRA's Washington-based government relations director who has also served as the SSDA's executive vice president since assuming its management 3.5 years ago.
It was the SSDA that was ``looking for an established show that was going to be around for a long time,'' and first approached ITRA, he said, not vice versa.
The alliance, he said, ``gives us a lot of clout on Capitol Hill'' because of the associations' combined numbers and common issues. ``And it gives us good negotiating power with suppliers.''
As part of a three-year study of how to consolidate and restructure itself, the SSDA's board explored a dozen national trade association-operated shows in the hopes of joining one. In February it narrowed its options to three: ITRA's; the National Association of Truck Stop Operators' event; and the massive Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show, part of the annual Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week shows every fall in Las Vegas.
Shortly before the ITRA show the SSDA voted unanimously to join it next year. Its 51st and final stand-alone convention will be in Orlando, Fla., this August.
The SSDA is restructuring to go to direct membership said Mr. Littlefield, who has been active in SSDA units in Washington, D.C., Delaware and Maryland since 1984. Service station owners across the country requested a ``legitimate'' trade show that offered seminars, educational and training opportunities instead of ``fluff,'' he stated. Surveys of members in 18 states revealed ITRA's show was their primary choice.
Asked if this is a precursor to the two trade groups eventually merging, Mr. Bozarth said he doesn't see that happening, although ``obviously, if the changes that take place are beneficial to both, it could be a possibility.''
Mr. Littlefield didn't discount that, either. ``I would suspect many members of both associations want to keep their separate identities going,'' he said. ``But I think they're going to eventually find there are so many opportunities to do things together that, down the road, who knows.''
Like the retreading industry, which has suffered continuing business casualties over the last decade, the service station industry has also seen its ranks dwindle. More than 100,000 stations have closed in the last 15 years, often over environmental concerns.
There still are more than 120,000 stations in operation, and Mr. Littlefield estimated about 60,000 of them sell tires. Some 90 percent of those are purchased from wholesalers and independent tire dealers rather than from manufacturers.
The industry trend has been toward service station owners with multiple locations, he said. While some operate company-owned facilities, many are franchisees of the nation's major petroleum corporations.
It is those very oil companies that the ITRA and SSDA plan to actively court for participation in next year's ITRA show. They, along with the addition of exhibitors such as tow truck companies, car washes and food vendors—a growing part of the gas/convenience store makeup—would dramatically change the show's appearance.
How much is open to conjecture.
Mr. Littlefield said their involvement could ``make a huge difference and really grow'' the ITRA show. Mr. Bozarth cautiously ventured a rough guess that, initially, exhibitor space could increase by up to 25 percent.
On the show floor, some retreaders wondered aloud how adding service station owners to the ITRA show would benefit them.
But Larry W. Sehman, owner of Sehman Tire Service, a retreading/commercial dealership in Franklin, Pa., said it was ``great news.'' And he does not believe the alliance is so far afield, since a number of service stations still sell tires to consumers and some also provide tires and vehicle maintenance service to local fleets, such as delivery companies.
Despite the show merger, Mr. Babek said the ITRA is still having ``active conversations'' with the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association. Whether or not that could mean a future joint trade show with ITRA remains to be seen, since the NTDRA is joining the upcoming SEMA show at least for a couple years.
But Mr. Bozarth said that, ``in certain areas, there might be more impetus to get together with the NTDRA'' and at least share some services and training programs.