PANAMA CITY, Panama — For the 10th anniversary of the Latin American & Caribbean Tyre Expo, organizer Gus Lima was looking forward to moving his tire trade show to the $192 million Amador Convention Center that was scheduled to open in early 2019 in Panama City.
But that was not to be. Construction of the 635,000-sq.-ft. facility remained unfinished as the Expo dates neared, forcing Mr. Lima and his Latin Expo Group L.L.C. to pirouette and return for one more year to the Atlapa Convention Center, where the event's been held since day one.
The decision had little impact on the 2019 show's success, Mr. Lima said.
While several exhibitors pulled out or reduced booth sizes after learning the event would not be located in the new facility, the show opened June 26 to a strong crowd that streamed into the Atlapa Convention Center behind the lead of a Carnival-inspired brass band, salsa dancers and an acrobatic soccer player doing tricks with the ball.
That got the show off and running.
Over the next two-and-half days an estimated 2,500 attendees from 50 countries visited the hall and the trade show's 182 exhibitors, the majority of which were from China.
Mr. Lima, CEO of Miami-based Latin Expo Group L.L.C., said he was pleased with the show's outcome, "because at the beginning of the year we thought that the other convention center would be ready and a lot of people got excited. Then when we had to revert to our Plan B, which was the Atlapa Convention Center, some people were not happy."
But any pre-event negativity quickly vanished as the show began. "I was very happy when I saw the turnout of both the exhibitors and especially the people that went there, the visitors," he said.
Mr. Lima got the idea for a tire trade show in the Caribbean and Latin America region more than 10 years ago, while he was attending a tire show in Shanghai, China. The inspiration came to him, he said, on the day the Obama Administration signed the anti-dumping order for Chinese tires imported into the U.S., causing panic among the Chinese tire makers he was seeing.
Visiting a tire supplier, he mentioned to his female host that he had a friend who has a tire show in Panama for the Latin American market (testing the water with her, as he called it) and asked if she would be interested in buying a booth there.
Her positive response and request for more information was all the encouragement he needed.
Sensing "a great opportunity," he immediately thought of the Atlapa Convention Center in Panama, where lots of international companies do business because of the Panama Canal and the country's free trade zone, "and I knew that it was going to be successful."
He flew to Panama, met with the minister of tourism and the die was cast for 10 years of the Latin Tyre Expo.
The first show was small, with only 30 exhibiting companies and about 250 visitors, and it lost money.
The next year, the numbers doubled and the Expo finished in the black, barely.
Since then "we just flowered from there," Mr. Lima said.
Mr. Lima said despite the slow start he believed the show would be successful.
"You know for all my life, I have been doing business in Latin America," he said. "I'm Cuban so I really understand our culture, the Latin culture. And, also, I've been doing business in China for many years."
Looking ahead to 2020, Mr. Lima expects the Latin American & Caribbean Tyre Expo to move into the new convention center and be combined with another show he produces called the Latin Auto Parts Expo.
The Auto Parts Expo typically attracts 250 exhibitors and about 2,500 attendees, similar numbers to the tire expo.
Together, Mr. Lima sees a bigger trade show resulting from the combination of the 250 auto parts and 182 tire-related exhibitors and an attendance of about 4,000 visitors.
He's also considering adding a retread and tire repair section to attract the many retreading companies in the region.
"I hope that section would be kind of associated with, or co-hosted with, the associations in the United States that are involved in that particular business: repair, training and retreading," he said.
While clearly conscience and proud of the conference's history, Mr. Lima isn't one to reflect on its success. He prefers to look forward.
Asked what he was thinking as the 10th show opened, and people streamed into the show hall, he said, "I was thinking of, how can I make it better and keep it going for the next 10 years. I don't look back. That milestone for me, it wasn't a milestone. For me I was thinking next year, how can I make this better. How can I create a better opportunity for business, for manufacturers and visitors."