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Benjamin Spillman

ConExpo-Con/Agg the biggest of the big

17 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The best way to grasp the magnitude of the biggest convention in Las Vegas is to look down at it from the sky.

Fortunately, the ConExpo-Con/Agg show at the Las Vegas Convention Center includes a few dozen cranes parked in the parking lot to provide such a view.

The construction industry show, held once every three years in Las Vegas, uses every square inch of space available at the convention center, including the parking lots, and by Thursday had already attracted a record attendance of nearly 140,000.

In addition to covering more than 2.2 million square feet of space and anticipating greater attendance than the International Consumer Electronics Show, organizers say ConExpo-Con/Agg features about 18 billion pounds of freight.

They started moving the heavy equipment in more than a month ago and won't be out of the convention center until about a week after the event closes Saturday.

Even with the housing crash and global credit crunch wreaking havoc on building projects, ConExpo-Con/Agg manages to attract a huge audience, including more than 26,000 international attendees from 130 countries.

The turnout surprised even Megan Tanel, vice president of expositions for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the Milwaukee-based company that owns the show.

"Coming into the show, the attendance and occupancy was down," for Las Vegas, she said. "There were some expectations I wasn't sure we could make."

Demand from countries like China and India continues to power the global construction industry.

More than two dozen cranes and other pieces the Germany-base company Liebherr-International brought to the show, some costing nearly $10 million, are already spoken for.

Foreign companies are swooping in to buy the merchandise when American companies, hampered by the economy and the weak dollar, back out of deals, said Michael Kasowski, regional sales manager of Liebherr Cranes.

"People are actually starting to wait in line," Kasowski said. "There are people here who have contracts for work and no cranes."

He said demand is particularly strong from the oil, gas and wind power industries.

So far, there's enough attendance at the Las Vegas show to generate nearly $233 million in spending in addition to gambling losses. Show organizers will also fork over about $3 million in rent to the convention center.

To accommodate the massive event, the convention center allowed organizers to start putting pieces in place in early February, even as other events were under way.

By Tuesday, when ConExpo-Con/Agg opened, workers had unfurled more than 1.3 million feet of telephone and Internet cables, rerouted traffic on Convention Center Drive, prepared four temporary taxi stands and new bus and shuttle stops to replace the stands and stops exhibitors are using for displays.

The show also used nearly every available parking spot at the convention center, meaning attendees had to take the monorail, a bus, cab, bicycle or their own feet to the event.

"We'd like to see every cab in town here," said Mark Haley, vice president of facilities for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

But even with workers willing to stretch the convention center to its limits, there may not be enough space to accommodate the next scheduled ConExpo-Con/Agg show in 2011.

For the first time, show organizers are considering expanding to another venue such as the Sands Expo Center, Mandalay Bay Convention Center or MGM Grand in addition to the Las Vegas Convention Center.

An $890 million renovation of the convention center will be mostly complete by then, but it doesn't increase the amount of exhibition space available, so ConExpo-Con/Agg will need another venue if organizers want it to grow.

"Our biggest concern is more space," said Dennis Slater, president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.