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Elevator U Through the Years

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“Vendor-Mercials” are popular, such as this one during Elevator U 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Leslie Lewis gets a helping hand from Glenn Duncan for a presentation about SmartRise Engineering, Inc.

Association has come a long way since the early days of the “Big Ten Plus Friends Elevator Conference.”

Institutions of higher learning – colleges and universities – are more than classrooms, professors and students. They are generators of ideas, often housed on sprawling campuses that bring leaders of thought together with young minds eager to learn. It is in these places that the seeds of these ideas are planted and nurtured to fruition.

In just such a place 19 years ago, the idea was planted for what has grown into a premier association and annual conference for the elevator industry – Elevator U.

It was early 1998 when two members of the Purdue University facilities-management department’s elevator division came up with the notion of having an annual conference to cover topics important to them and to the elevator teams at other universities. Jeff Cooper and Bob Snip began planning their event after some of their colleagues in Purdue facilities management took part in a meeting with counterparts from other Big Ten universities to discuss problems involved in the mechanical and electrical systems on campuses. Cooper and Snip believed that such an event focusing on vertical-transportation issues would be beneficial not only to them, but also to the elevator maintenance departments on other campuses.

Cooper turned to other people in the industry to discuss the feasibility and the process of getting the conference off the ground – among them, Robert S. Caporale, late editor of ELEVATOR WORLD. Writing later that year (EW, September 1998), Caporale recalled a phone conversation he’d had with the gentleman from Purdue:

Cooper asked if I thought there would be interest in such an affair and, if so, how we might go about setting something up along these lines. We continued the conversation for some time, and after having considered possible speakers and topics, we came away quite confident that such a conference could work and was, in fact, probably long overdue.

Within a couple of months of that phone call, the groundwork had been laid, and the team at Purdue was ready to formally announce the event. The first “Big Ten Plus Friends Elevator Conference” would be held in June 1998 on the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. A roster of industry experts would speak, they announced, and attendees would find an opportunity to network and exchange information relevant to elevator maintenance on academic campuses. But, would there be enough interest to make the meeting worthwhile?

Turns out, the answer was an emphatic “yes.” Cooper related to Caporale (EW, September 1998) that “quite a few” people had signed up for the conference. “There’s a great deal of interest from the universities, as well as the industry in attending the conference,” Cooper said. “I think we have a winner.”

More than 100 people showed up for that first conference 19 years ago. Representatives of manufacturers and suppliers were in attendance, but the bulk of the gathering consisted of elevator maintenance specialists, planners and architects from college campuses. Through the course of several sessions spread out over a day and a half, the conference focused on several featured topics, including proprietary equipment and service by nonmanufacturer personnel; parts availability for older equipment; and proposed changes to safety codes. A mini expo was held, allowing 22 companies to display their wares and promote their services. The final session consisted of working groups focused on a range of subjects.

The success of that first conference clearly created a buzz, because the next year’s meeting saw even greater interest. The 1999 conference, also held at Purdue, brought together facility managers and elevator maintenance personnel from more than 30 colleges and universities, plus “a large number of elevator industry manufacturers, equipment suppliers and inspectors from around the U.S.” (EW, September 1999). Highlights of that two-day meeting included educational seminars and discussion groups, and a larger industry expo.

The next two years saw successful meetings in a new venue, the University of Michigan (UM) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Conference organizers, led by UM’s Terri Flint, brought an even greater variety of discussion topics to the table, including contract writing, modernizations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, QEI certification and jobsite safety concerns. A new, more inclusive name reflected the growth of the annual gathering: the Vertical Transportation Conference for Colleges and Universities (VTCCU).

By the time the fifth meeting was called to order, in 2002 and back on the Purdue campus, the event had firmly established itself as a major draw for facilities managers and the elevator industry at large.

It was during the 2006 gathering, held at Georgia State University in Atlanta, that VTCCU meeting participants decided to formally organize the group into an industry association, and Elevator U was chosen as its name (EW, September 2006). Board members and officers were elected, committees were formed, and membership was opened to all in the elevator industry, not only university personnel. The forward-thinking leadership also created a website, elevatoru.org, that not only serves members, but also acts as a portal for information about the industry.

Flint, now president of Elevator U, said becoming an association has made a great deal of difference for conference organizers, as compared to the early days of the “Big Ten Plus Friends” gatherings. “It was difficult” to arrange the conference back then, she said, noting that the responsibility for arranging the conference – including financially – fell “squarely on the shoulders of the host school.”

When it became an industry association, Elevator U gained the power to establish a bank account, where funds to finance conferences could be maintained. The new status provided for the establishment of committees, spreading out the tasks for planning conferences. It also made it easier for Elevator U to recruit new colleges and universities as members and conference hosts.

A consistent feature at Elevator U conferences has been presentations and discussions covering issues important not only to the industry, but also issues that present unique challenges to academic campuses. Flint alluded to some of these challenges: the 24/7 operation common to many college facilities; vandalism; and machinery designed for the sometimes-unusual handling requirements of specialized equipment or displays that present challenges because of their size, weight or delicate nature.

Another constant has been Elevator U’s focus on education, safety and codes, Flint said. She noted that, in some instances, maintenance workers have more of a straight electrical background, so Elevator U gives them an opportunity to mix with men and women whose expertise covers the maintenance spectrum. These interactions can only benefit these workers and the institutions that employ them.

Flint said participation is open “to every facet of the industry.” This way, Elevator U makes possible interactions among maintenance personnel, engineers and designers, which can make building transportation systems safer. For example, “Architects don’t always spend a lot of time on elevator design,” she said, but when they confer with people who understand the problems of maintaining the mechanical systems, they come away with a greater appreciation of the impact their designs have on these problems.

While Elevator U is now an association for the vertical-transportation industry, the annual conference continues its original mandate of serving elevator teams at colleges and universities, who in turn have continued to sponsor the event – often, right on campus. In addition to Purdue, Michigan and Georgia State, other hosts have included the University of Maryland, Iowa State University, The Ohio State University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Illinois, Illinois State University, Penn State University, Michigan State University and Arizona State University. This year, the University of Virginia will welcome the conference on June 19-22 in Charlottesville.

The focus has always been on important issues, but the conferences have included plenty of forays away from the meeting halls. Participants have enjoyed visits to factories producing elevator components, and the recreational outings – including golf and spectator sports – have proved popular. Social activities and catered meals have been on the agenda, as well, which offer attendees all-important networking opportunities.

From its humble yet ambitious beginnings, Elevator U has blossomed into a major association for the vertical-transportation industry, and, for many, a must-attend annual conference. That day-and-a-half meeting back in 1998 has expanded to this year’s three full days of discussion, education and networking (plus another day for a preconference golf outing). The scope of the organization has expanded greatly from the originally envisioned “Big Ten” organization; today, Elevator U brings together dozens of universities and numerous elevator professionals from across the nation. As a full-fledged association, it offers tremendous service to the vertical-transportation industry and strongly encourages membership, which not only brings professional benefits, but also helps further Elevator U’s educational mandate.

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