NPE2012 was a giant plastics trade show, but it became a far bigger story than all the closures, medical pipettes and, yes, those ubiquitous curly walking sticks getting molded at the Orange County Convention Center the first week of April.
NPE now is a symbol of the trade show industry's economic power. An NPE generates tens of millions of dollars as people spend money on cabs, hotel rooms, dinner.
In late 2009, when the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. announced it was moving NPE from Chicago's McCormick Place — its home since 1971 — it sounded a wakeup call in Chicago. Orlando officials started dreaming about luring big shows.
The move of NPE reverberated through both cities. People in Orlando were truly excited: Here comes an influx of 55,000 business people to a Florida trade show during a vibrant manufacturing economy, ready to let the good times roll after the crushing recession.
That set up the showdown:
* The Town that Mickey Mouse Built vs. the City of Broad Shoulders.
* Downtown Disney vs. the Redhead Piano Bar.
* And most importantly — the right-to-work South, where you can build your own booth, vs. the unionized North, where you have to pay a union guy to plug in an extension cord.
Or used to. Chicago is working to reform McCormick Place. Illinois passed a law capping McCormick Place labor costs and allowing exhibitors to do setup work in their booths. Unions sued, but later reached a settlement.
Clearly, Orlando did a great job. To truly judge whether NPE2012 is an unqualified success, we still need SPI to provide a breakdown of how many processors from the industrial Midwest came to Florida. That was one of Chicago's strongest points: A central location within easy driving distance of much of the plastics industry.
Also, it's not fair to just compare the final registration numbers of NPE2012 (55,359) to the depth-of-the-recession NPE2009 (43,000). I think a better comparison is NPE2006 (64,451).
Another key question is how much money actually was saved by having NPE in Orlando instead of Chicago. When SPI announced the move, it claimed exhibitors would save a total of $10 million and attendees would save another $10 million. I asked big machinery exhibitors about this and they had only a very rough idea.
But they all enjoyed the atmosphere in Orlando, using their own technicians to set up their booths, the can-do attitude of the convention center and hotels. Orlando is built around tourism — but with all the running equipment, NPE was a special challenge, as Orlando's biggest-ever show in terms of electricity consumption.
Competition is good. Orlando has taught Chicago a lesson: Don't take trade shows for granted. Not even after 14 straight NPEs in McCormick Place. “A lot of other exhibit and trade shows watched what happened with this event,” said Jessie Allen, general manager of the Orlando County Convention Center.
Bregar is an Akron, Ohio-based Plastics News senior reporter.