At transport conferences, fleet managers, executives and other trucking enthusiasts get the chance to talk turkey. Panelists discuss mechanics, regulation, industry problems and the future. Business cards are exchanged. Some exhibitors give out free soda, candy or lapel pins.
The events can be very lucrative for the organizers, drawing fees from exhibitors, attendees and sponsors.
In Indianapolis a year ago, Work Truck Week, put on by the NTEA, decided to go ahead with its annual conference in the first week of March.
It was one of the last major trucking events held in person in 2020.
A year later, vaccinations are underway. Texas has repealed coronavirus-related limits on major in-door events. Other states, such as Connecticut, have signaled a gradual reopening.
But with new infections still an issue, there is no clear consensus on when the conference industry will stage a wide-scale return.
Work Truck Week opened Monday, but virtually.
"Of course, we would much rather meet in person like we do every year at The Work Truck Show. But our focus on doing what's right for the industry and the people we serve is what drove our decision not to hold a traditional, in-person event this year," said Summer Marrs, NTEA director of communications and public relations. "We just have to do it differently this year."
In person, big value
John Anderson, operating partner of Greenbriar Equity Group — whose investment portfolio includes companies such as LaserShip, Seko Logistics and Uber Freight — said he attends about six conferences a year and that opportunities to meet people in person are a "big value."
Trucking's conferences vary in subject and focus. But for the goals Anderson has — acquisitions and deals — there is nothing else like them.
"I could go to a two-day conference and see 15 people," said Anderson. "Otherwise, it would take five or six trips, going to someone's location for a meeting.
Anderson said working the phones, working through lists, and using apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are only good for so much.
The in-person opportunities draw tens of thousands of people to scope out new models and technology. Organizers draw big dollars hosting the events.
But as for the fiscal punch to moving such events away from in-person, it is difficult to gauge the impact on trucking's various trade organizations. NTEA did not address the issue. And the American Trucking Associations, a major event player, declined to comment for this story.
"Zoom calls are great if you are brainstorming. But if you are trying to build trust?"
Operating Partner at Greenbriar Equity Group
The ATA had planned to go ahead with its annual Management Conference and Exhibition last October in Denver. MC&E, as it is known, is one of the largest trucking-related conferences in North America. While truck OEMs turn out heavily for MC&E, the conference also brings out suppliers of parts, technologies and services.
Daimler Trucks' Freightliner division usually brings a large sideshow to MC&E. In 2019, it brought Luke Bryan to the San Diego ballpark for select guests. In the past, Daimler's musical guests included the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart.
In 2020, no rock stars made it. On July 28, ATA President Chris Spear wrote to members and said MC&E would be virtual, after holding out hope the event would be in person.
Daimler Trucks said it is looking forward to future events, but it understands why they were called off. Like Anderson, the OEM suggested it is watching the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines.
"Like the entire industry, Daimler Trucks North America is very much looking forward to the return to trade shows and in-person customer visits and the resumption of normalcy that represents," said a Daimler Trucks spokesperson. "However, the physical health of both our employees, customers and show-goers as a whole will continue to drive our decision-making on when we return to these activities."
A break from costly conferences
For some attendees, the year off provided a break, financially and otherwise. Some industry officials said event attendance was a major annual undertaking for their firms.
"Before COVID-19, there were just so many shows," said Sue Rutherford, vice president of marketing of Orbcomm. "It was too costly."
In the meantime, Orbcomm has been engaging with its customers and potential clients. Rutherford said she believes the downtime will be a "course correction" for the industry, and that could benefit vendors.
"Maybe there will be a bit of a hybrid that comes out of it," said Rutherford.
Still, Rutherford conceded that events such as an in-person MC&E cannot be replaced. "Conversations are much more dynamic when you are sitting across from a person," said Rutherford.
Anderson is skeptical of virtual meetings replacing in-person.
"Zoom calls are great if you are brainstorming," said Anderson. "But if you are trying to build trust?"
The industry also relies on the events for training and education, but that is a shock Anderson believes trucking can absorb for now, relying on virtual meetings and education.
"[Training] is easier to substitute than trust-building," said Anderson.
"We just have to do it differently this year."
Director of Communications and Public Relations for NTEA
In the meantime, virtual events have some benefits. Marrs notes the virtual format means attendees don't have to worry about missing an event.
"A key benefit of an online format is that people can participate as their schedules allow, at their convenience," said Marrs. The live version of Work Truck Week runs March 8 through 12, but sessions and contact information are available on-demand through April 9, she said.
The pandemic and the virtual shows have not deterred major manufacturers from showing up, albeit virtually. Companies such as Peterbilt, Isuzu and Mack turned out (virtually) to exhibit for the 2021 Work Truck Week.
Marrs believes the Work Truck Week will be held, in-person, in the Hoosier capital a year from now.
"An in-person Work Truck Week 2022 is scheduled March 8 to 11, 2022, at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Indiana," she said.