In some ways, it was as expected. Wider aisles. Less congestion. Shorter lines. Quicker cab lines.
This year's SEMA Show, organized by the trade association representing the $47.8 billion automotive specialty equipment industry, as well as the accompanying AAPEX, went off about as well as possible, given the challenges holding a signature trade show in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic brings about.
Masks were required most everywhere indoors — and of course Las Vegas visitors had no problem complying with that directive on Halloween weekend.
Most attendees adhered to the rules requiring facemasks on show floors, in cabs and other transportation services, as well as in casinos. AAPEX, in fact, required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test before entering the show.
Most striking were the curtains that cordoned off roughly half of the unused space on the ground floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall, site of the Global Tire Expo. In years past, exhibitors from across the globe filled the hall.
This year, however, few overseas companies exhibited, and the handful that were there sent minimal representation. A number of booths seemed to be unattended the entire week.
Several other companies that exhibited in the past chose not to this year, instead hosting meetings in hotels offsite. Still others chose not to attend, period.
The SEMA Show roster of exhibitors in the South Hall numbered only 50 in the tire category (manufacturers, wholesalers, importers, etc.) this year, in addition to around 35 wheel companies and 30 companies in the equipment category (including software).
These were all about half, or more, of the list from 2019.
Then there were those exhibitors who embraced the SEMA experience, as they have done in the past.
Hunter Engineering Co., for one, had its usual strong presence at the show, touting a variety of innovations, including its work with RoboTire, an robotic tire-changing device that attracted plenty of attention around the Hunter booth.
Cooper Tire had its coming-out party as a Goodyear subsidiary, with an impressive array of products at its booth. The sense I got from the Cooper folks will be heartening to dealers: It's business as usual. Mastercraft, another Cooper product, also was among the Cooper products on display, while Cooper's Mickey Thompson Tires & Wheels unit had its own display in the courtyard outside of the South Hall.
Goodyear got more good news when the SEMA Show revealed that Cooper had swept the Best New Products Awards in the tire categories, with a pair of Mickey Thompson-branded products and one Cooper-branded tire.
Cooper's Mickey Thompson Baja Legend EXP ultra-terrain tire was judged the best new product, while its ET Street Front drag racing tire was a runner-up along with the Cooper Discoverer Snow Claw winter tire.
SEMA recognizes the most "innovative and cutting-edge" automotive aftermarket products that will be consumable in 2022 with this award.
One other item of note: The Tire Industry Association (TIA) started the week with its pandemic-delayed celebration of its 100th anniversary. As part of the festivities, the organization lauded outgoing CEO Roy Littlefield III while welcoming incoming CEO Dick Gust.
Kudos to the committee that assembled TIA's Anniversary Celebration. Keynote speaker Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam veteran who survived a grenade explosion and the loss of part of his foot to play in four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was so passionate that he could probably sell a tire to a tire dealer.
Wait. That's a bad analogy in today's market.
Two overriding comments emerged from the week:
1) While SEMA attendance was down — officials said more than 100,000 attendees, exhibitors, and media participated in the first full-facility event at the Las Vegas Convention Center, compared with 162,000 in 2019 — the folks who were there were serious customers.
"Traffic was better than expected, but our expectations were low coming in," one exhibitor said.
Then he added, "Those who did come are serious buyers. Much better use of our booth staff's time this year."
The overwhelming sentiment was that the show was better than was expected — but expectations were low to begin with.
2) The elephant in the room was, of course, the supply-chain woes.
Every company we talked with is experiencing product shortages. That, coupled with rising tire prices, raging consumer demand and pandemic-related issues both here and abroad, has made this a time like never before.
One dealer told me that the issue presents a real conundrum: Does he offer a lesser product to his customers and run the risk of losing that customer in the future, because of the lesser product he or she bought? Or do you put them off until you find a suitable product that they expect of your dealership?
Much of the sentiment is that the supply chain won't return anywhere close to pre-pandemic levels until late next year. If then.
One executive put it this way: "Customers have been asking when I thought the supply chain would return to normal. I tell them, 'My crystal ball says late 2022, early 2023. What does your say?'"
SEMA/AAPEX still will go down as the largest trade show gathering Las Vegas will hold in 2021. But will those companies that chose not to exhibit come back? Will this year's show go down as a missed opportunity, or a great cost-savings move that reflects well on the bottom line?
What does your crystal ball say?