Leaving Las Vegas: Reflections On WasteExpo 1996

As the sun slanted westward over Las Vegas' famous strip on May 24, the hotels' and casinos' neon lights began their incessant flashing and winking yet again luring weary conventioneers for one more evening of games, rides and shows before heading to the airport for a red-eye flight home. The city raced and danced, but WasteExpo '96 had drawn to a close.

For this five-day event and three-day exposition, the mornings and afternoons on the show floor and in the seminars had been nearly as frenetic as the nights on the town.

The industry's largest trade show, WasteExpo '96 attracted more than 13,300 attendees, including approximately 10,000 "qualified buyers," and 595 exhibitors, according to Ryan Strowger of the Environmental Industries Association (EIA), the show's host. Although attendance waned a bit from last year's 14,000 in Chicago, the number of exhibitors jumped. Total exhibit space was the largest ever, spanning approximately 230,000 square feet at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which sprawls in the heart of this hot desert town.

Despite the high overall attendance, the first day's end brought mixed feelings about the week a-head. Several exhibitors commented on a sluggish first day but remained optimistic - and rightfully so - that the crowd would expand as the week progressed.

Some attributed the initial slow pace to the show's sheer size and the convention center's roomy layout. "Peo-ple just haven't made it back here yet," said one lift manufacturer representative whose booth was tucked at the end of the hall. "There's so much to see up front. They'll start trickling down here tomorrow." Others attributed the sluggishness to the day's late opening time and short hours 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Still others blamed it on the town. "You've got a combination of late-night gambling and nice weather," said Robert Christy of Mobile Computing Corp., Ontario. "Compared to last year's show, it seems pretty slow today. Then again, it could be a matter of perception because [this convention center] is so spread out."

No matter what the reason, many early-bird floorwalkers were delighted to have the exhibition to themselves. "I'm glad we came early and beat the rush," said one attendee from a Colorado hauling firm.

Prospectors' Paradise As the week advanced, increasing numbers of prospective buyers crowded around the hulking equipment on display. For many, the annual auction was a prospector's paradise.

On the show floor, gargantuan processing equipment gleamed orange, yellow and blue. The thunder of rear loaders and au-tomated side loaders in action filled the air. Trash trucks painted with decks of cards, poker chips and "Vegas Or Bust" banners rivaled the glitz and glitter of the casinos outside. At the Sanifill booth, visitors admired vintage Corvettes. On another end of the floor, Mack Trucks' booth was a miniature version of the New York, New York casino currently under construction in Las Vegas. In every corner, the gaming theme pervaded.

For first-time attendee Steven Strong, a student from Kearney, Neb., and an intern at O'Neill, Neb.'s Midplains Waste Management composting facility, the experience was "very cool." His mission? To network with the show's more experienced attendees in hopes of finding post-college work in organic wastes processing.

More seasoned conventioneers, such as Lee Hind-man of Suburban Sanita-tion, Yuma, Ariz., came to fill very specific equipment needs. Because Hindman's company is moving into recycling and processing, he came to examine this year's products and "see what's new in the market."

Overall, potential buyers seemed pleased with what manufacturers had to offer. Stephen Ford, general manager of Palo Alto Sanitation Co. in California, was attending the show for a second time - this year in search of software. "There's better technical information available this year," he said. "Of course, maybe that's be-cause now I know what questions to ask."

Indeed, several exhibitors commented on the erudition of today's waste equipment buyer. "Even if the volume [of buyers] is down, the quality continues to be high," said a representative from Rexworks, Milwaukee.

With these increasingly discriminating customers, many manufacturers at the show were committed to satisfying buyers' demands. Buzz words and phrases often heard around the floor included "reliability," "serviceability," "open cooperation" and, not surprisingly, "affecting the customer's bottom line."

On going education also was a prominent theme. Not only can conventioneers learn from exhibitors, they also can teach each other tricks of the trade. Alan Erdossy of Ivy Computing, Waterbury, Vt., de-scribed the show as a "nexus for buyers to get ideas from each other." For example, he said, "I had two guys from Kansas City, Mo., in my booth. They never would have known the other existed if they hadn't met at the show. Now they're going to share garage space in different parts of the city."

West Coast Waste Just inside the Pacific time zone and surrounded by barren desert, Las Vegas was a long way from home for many attendees and the farthest west the show has traveled in a while. For a great many other attendees, however, including South-ern Californians, the show was finally a short drive away from their own turf. Indeed, California, Washing-ton and Oregon all had sizeable representation, according to EIA's Strowger.

In light of the show's location, EIA added some special programs to the agenda. "The California Solid Waste Program drew strong support from West Coast attendees," he said. The program included seminars on AB 939, collection innovations, composting, tiered permitting, regional landfills and rail hail.

Also for the first time, Waste-Expo '96 shared its space with Superfund/HazWaste West, whose comparatively small group of exhibitors occupied approximately 4,500 square feet on the convention center's upper deck.

Seminars for hazwaste connoisseurs included sessions on western states' remediation programs, RCRA changes, site redevelopment, Superfund reform and ISO 14000, as well as an industry roundtable.

In addition to the strong presence from the West Coast solid waste and hazardous waste professions, this year's WasteExpo also drew a crowd from around the globe, continuing a trend from years past. The show attracted approximately 1,500 international attendees, representing countries on all continents. Most of these visitors had traveled from Europe, Asia and South America, Strowger explained.

Next Year: Hotlanta What can the industry expect for next year's WasteExpo? The show's attendees will get a dose of Southern hospitality in Atlanta, site of this year's summer Ol-ympic Games.

"We chose Atlanta before anyone knew the Olympics were going to be held there," Strowger said. WasteExpo '97 attendees certainly will benefit from the city's current efforts to prepare for the Games. "With Atlanta cleaning up and polishing its venues, there will be a nice afterglow for our show," Strowger added.

As always, EIA is encouraging attendees to register early. So far, approximately 70 percent of booth space has been reserved for WasteExpo '97, according to Strowger. With such a strong early response, the industry can only expect bigger and brighter things on the horizon for 1997.