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Chris Jones

Convention Plans Less Show, More Tell

30 May 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Pass the devil some ice skates, and be on the lookout for flying pigs.

How else to prepare for the otherwise inconceivable: Organizers of a major Las Vegas convention have decreed scantily clad spokesmodels can no longer spice up the scene before show attendees? At an auto parts trade show, no less?

Surprising or not, that's just what's in store at this year's Specialty Equipment Market Association convention scheduled for Nov. 1-4 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Fed up with exhibitor-hired models who way too often dressed way too down, the Diamond Bar, Calif.-based trade group has drawn the line on excessive skin on its privately controlled trade show floor -- even if it's powerless to police the countless garages adorned with naked pinup shots frequently favored by SEMA's core attendees.

"Skin has been a part of hot rod culture for a long time. Some exploit it, and some don't," said Peter MacGillivray, a SEMA vice president. "But we're talking about inappropriate apparel, or lack thereof, and it was something we needed to address."

Hold your horsepower, said Peter DeLorenzo, a frequent SEMA attendee. He and others he's spoken with, including some SEMA exhibitors, are perplexed by the show's apparent U-turn.

"This is a head-scratcher," said DeLorenzo, who publishes, a weekly Internet news magazine, from suburban Detroit. "Why try to alter what's fundamentally been the appealing nature of the show? Manufacturers expect SEMA to be a little politically incorrect."

Founded in 1963, SEMA's more than 5,700 member companies are part of the $29 billion specialty automotive industry. Products range from upgraded suspension kits and air intakes for wannabe Dale Earnhardts to mobile video systems that pacify children while their parents drive about town.

SEMA's annual gathering is one of the nation's largest trade shows, attracting more than 100,000 attendees to its Las Vegas events in both 2003 and 2004. As DeLorenzo said, some of its appeal has been the chance to spy the many half-dressed models showcased almost as prominently as new automotive gear.

DeLorenzo's Web site even sells a digital video disk loaded with nearly 200 spokesmodel shots taken at recent SEMA events.

But MacGillivray said the half-naked beauties are unbefitting the show's growing stature. With more than 2,000 media outlets registering for last year's show, he said, it's time to tone things down.

"We don't feel like it will threaten the fun and excitement of the show, but at the same time we felt we needed to remind the industry that the show is a reflection of the industry," MacGillivray said "We'd hate to have a few loose ends make the wrong impression."

SEMA organizers will give exhibitors guidelines on what attire is appropriate, he added, with hopes those companies will "self-police" what models wear this fall. When asked to discuss past violations, MacGillivray joked he's "too shy" to describe them.

DeLorenzo was far less coy. He said another SEMA representative told him troubles arose last fall when an exhibitor employed models whose breasts were covered only with colored body paint.

"People freaked out; but come on, it's Las Vegas," DeLorenzo said. "Here's a town that pretty much specializes in, 'What goes on there, stays there.' But here's SEMA, trying to dial it back a notch. Huh?"

DeLorenzo doubts the new clothing rules will hurt attendance, since the show has become too important to the industry.

But the pending crackdown could affect local modeling agencies such as Envy Model &Talent, which has booked models for past SEMA conventions, as well as many other major local trade show gatherings.

Talent Director Kelley Thomas said SEMA's new clothing policy could dissuade some exhibitors from hiring models at all, though the overall impact on the modeling industry will likely be minimal.

"Clients like to have women at exhibitor booths, no matter how they're dressed," Thomas said. "A showgirl may get a little more attention than a regularly dressed girl, but it's really more about what products they're pitching and the models themselves than it is about what they're wearing."

Rich Weber, chief executive officer of Las Vegas' Lenz Agency, said it's too soon to gauge how SEMA's directive would affect local models. But he suspects so-called "T&A" girls will receive less work come November.

Weber said he's not surprised by the association's crackdown on risque attire.

"Sex sells, but we're now seeing the controversy over how far people are willing to go," he said. "It seems as if SEMA has hit the wall."

Auto shows in particular appeal to a largely male audience, Weber said, which could lead to some disappointment should this year's trade show floor be less-titillating than those of the past.

"It may be a push between cars and girls", Weber said when speculating about SEMA's top draw. "You put the flashiest of both in front of people, and you'll definitely get their attention."

Said MacGillivray: "If you're coming to the SEMA show just for that (skin) element ... then maybe the SEMA show isn't the right place for you."