Annual convention and expo is subdued, but nonetheless rich in education, networking, food and fun.
photos by Pat Garin for NAEC
On the floor of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO) for the National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC) 2021 Convention & Exposition (NAEC NOLA) on October 6, Mike Jennings of Virginia Controls (VC) said that, at one point, six people were lined up to talk to him about VC’s elevator controllers and repair parts. Despite its smaller size (100 exhibitors and 91 booths, compared to up to 140 exhibitors and nearly 130 booths during a “regular” year), Jennings was not alone in describing the event as a success in that it provided the opportunity to make strong connections with existing and potential customers. Fewer booths meant more time to spend at each, and attendees and exhibitors certainly took advantage of that. Jonathan Taub, owner of Canada’s FIELDBOSS, said:
“It felt good to talk to real people and make solid connections. There really is no substitute for in-person trade shows. We had a great time meeting new people and catching up with existing clients. It was not as busy and crowded, so you could spend more time together and have one-on-one conversations, which was helpful.”
On the flipside, and an indication that life was not truly back to normal, masks were mandated in the MCCNO, and “mask police” were vigilant and quick to tell anyone who had pulled their mask down to talk to put it back on. However, attendees were allowed to remove their masks to eat, and there was plenty of that going on the tradeshow floor: A catering crew kept the coffee flowing and the beignets frying at the Coffee & Beignet Cart sponsored by Urban Elevator Service, while the Party Float, sponsored by Elevated Facility Services, served up jambalaya and adult beverages, like the famous New Orleans Hurricanes.
Situated along the banks of the Mississippi River, MCCNO is one of the largest contiguous-space exhibit halls in the U.S., with 1.1 million ft2. Anyone wanting to get their desired number of Fitbit® steps in for the day should have had no problem. A shuttle bus operated in a continuous loop between MCCNO and host hotels the Marriott and Hilton Riverside. In the surrounding area, the city was clearly still struggling from not only COVID-19, but the effects of Hurricane Ida, a deadly storm that slammed the city and nearby communities on August 29. Although communities south of New Orleans suffered the most severe damage, New Orleans proper was largely spared, but blinking traffic lights and stop-and-start traffic indicated that all was not normal. “New Orleans itself seemed to be completely empty — no lively street music or art displays around the French Quarter,” Taub said. “It was very quiet and eerie.” To help the area recover, NAEC raffled a swanky bottle of spirits, with proceeds going to a local charity specializing in disaster recovery.
Inside the convention hall, the scene was lively, with colorful, elaborate Mardi Gras floats that people could board for photo opps, a photo booth, replica historic gas street lamps and signs and fun giveaways, such as tiny bottles of Tabasco hot sauce (ECI America), Tabasco-themed T-shirts (MAD Elevator) and, naturally, Mardi Gras beads and cups. “Another plus was the jazz music playing all day through the speakers in the exhibit hall,” Taub observed. “That was a nice New Orleans touch; there isn’t usually music playing at a tradeshow.”
“It was not as busy and crowded, so you could spend more time together and have one-on-one conversations, which was helpful.”— FIELDBOSS owner Jonathan Taub
Monday, October 4
NAEC NOLA officially kicked off with a golf tournament at Lakewood Golf Club in the heart of Algiers on New Orleans’ West Bank. Attendees boarded a plush, roomy bus and departed from the Hilton Riverside lobby at 6:30 a.m. to an 18-hole course designed by award-winning golf course architect Ron Garl.
Attendees registered at MCCNO throughout the day as the tradeshow floor was abuzz with activity and noise while exhibitors and construction crews set up booths and displays. A golf cart-style shuttle ferried guests between the hotels and the tradeshow floor. Companions could enjoy “A Taste of the Vieux Carré Tour,” where they learned how to cook Creole delicacies as they took in one of the largest concentrations of historic buildings in North America in Jackson Square.
Held in the Hilton Riverside Ballroom, the welcome reception that evening drew quite a crowd. Guests walked past a local artist sitting before a nearly blank canvas, painting the scene before her. It was fun to witness the painting “come to life” as the evening unfolded and to pick out your dinner companions or yourself among those captured on canvas.
A jazz band played “When The Saints Go Marching In” at least twice, as drinks flowed from an open bar and guests enjoyed Louisiana cuisine such as barbecue shrimp and grits and shrimp scampi. The sinful, deep-fried Oreo was well worth the calories.
A jazz band played “When The Saints Go Marching In” at least twice, as drinks flowed from an open bar and guests enjoyed Louisiana cuisine such as barbecue shrimp and grits and shrimp scampi.
Tuesday, October 5
Registration at the MCCNO commenced at 7:30 a.m. as exhibitor-setup continued throughout the day. In a full room, breakfast was served immediately before the General Business Session. NAEC Executive Director Rená Cozart welcomed attendees and introduced NAEC President Hope Evans. By having the NAEC convention in person despite the challenges of the year, Cozart said, “We were committed to do what we are meant to do: help you do business.”
In discussing the 20th anniversary of CET®, Evans said, “We are grateful to ELEVATOR WORLD for the partnership and help in administering the program.” Editor-at-Large/Publisher Ricia Sturgeon-Hendrick and President T. Bruce MacKinnon were recognized.
The contractor Board of Directors (BoD) nominees were asked to come onstage and address the crowd. They were:
- Chris Harris, A+ Elevator
- Sean Madden, Madden Elevator
- Landon Scott, Centric Elevator
All three were accepted by popular vote. Supplier nominee Jennings of VC also got up to speak to the group. His nomination was also accepted by popular vote. About serving on the NAEC board, Jennings said, “We’re here to listen and work for you guys.”
At standing-room only with more than 70 in attendance, the Contractor Member Session, led by Evans, was one of the largest in memory. Each topic was led by someone introduced by Evans. The first topic was the impact of COVID-19 and vaccinations in the workplace, led by new NAEC Vice President John Tolar. “We had to make decisions that were difficult,” Tolar said. “Were we putting our people at risk?”
Audience members shared stories about what is happening at their companies, and spoke about vaccine mandates, vaccines versus testing, company incentives for those who are vaccinated and the consequences of not being vaccinated. Those include employees having to use their paid time off and OSHA fining companies with more than 100 employees for not requiring their employees be vaccinated. Mandates are coming for schools, military facilities and hospitals. Counterfeit vaccination cards are on the rise. Employees may move from company to company if they refuse to get vaccinated. Tolar said: “We have to keep doing what we’re doing, or COVID has won.”
Other topics included discussion of a one-time spring tradeshow in the Northeast for those who missed NAEC NOLA, the impact of rising raw materials costs, and updates on QEI and OSHA confined-spaces initiatives.
The issue of “suitcasing” — suppliers who have not paid to exhibit coming into an expo and selling — prompted lengthy discussion at the Supplier Member Session. NAEC has a strong policy against suitcasing, but many said they want non-exhibiting suppliers to be charged the cost of a tabletop booth — US$5,000 — just to set foot in the hall. Currently, they are simply escorted from the premises.
Moderated by NAEC Marketing and Member Services Manager Tripp Cook, the Associate Member Session was small on attendees — including Dick Gregory of Vertex Corp., Greg Sacks of Superior Elevator Inspections and your author — but big on important topics of conversation, including inspector liability, vertical-transportation (VT) equipment and employment trends and proprietary equipment issues. The question, “If we do a poor inspection and an accident happens, what is our liability?” prompted a discussion that included recent elevator cases in the national news.
That day’s offering for attendees’ companions was an airboat tour of the nearby swamp, where they experienced the beauty and serenity of a wild area characterized by Spanish moss-draped cypress trees, wildflowers, muskrats, herons, nutria and, of course, alligators.
Roundtable discussions took up most of the afternoon prior to that evening’s invitation-only Leadership Reception. They were:
- “Simple Tactics to Maximize Repair Sales” by Brad Hoersten of ElevatorZip
- “Process and Performance Improvement” by Robert Masterson of Champion Elevator Corp.
- “Code Standards and Liability: A Nexus to Know” by Patrick Edwards of Soft Landings Vertical Services, Inc.
- “Residential Elevator Door Gap Safety Solutions: 2021 and Beyond” by Craig Jones of Country Home Elevator
Bookending the roundtables were a pair of panels: “So Your Next Generation is a Woman? Let Us Tell You How Powerful She Can Be,” moderated by Amy DiPaolo, senior vice president of New Jersey operations at Champion; Matot owner Cece Matot; and Karen Kennedy Dodds, CEO of Kencor, Inc.; and “Family Business: Navigating Today’s Environment of Acquisitions and Investments,” moderated by Jeff Eaton of Lift Business Advisors, Dominik Sachsenheimer of Maven Group, James Boydston of Handi-Lift and John Marshall, Sr., of Action Elevator. Both panels were well-attended and provided inspiration, insight and lively discussion.
In accepting the [William C. Sturgeon Distinguished Service Award], [Champion Elevator’s Don] Gelestino compared it to the elevator industry’s Oscars or Grammys.
Matot said that, as a fifth-generation elevator professional, she has always felt welcome as a woman in the industry. “People notice you,” she said, then they notice you more once you prove yourself. DiPaolo, who has 30 years in the industry, agreed, observing that women are always recognized as equals once they prove they can do the job — and do it well. DiPaolo shared that she started with KONE, then launched her own company, which in the past few years she sold to Champion. She said women should keep in mind that they don’t necessarily have to be a mechanic or inspector to join the industry. She, for example, has a background in computers, and understanding them is essential for running a VT (or any type of) business. Dodds, a fourth-generation elevator professional, said she “doesn’t know a lot about the workings of elevators, but knows a whole lot about running a company.”
All agreed that the need is great to spread the word among women that a VT career is fun and lucrative. Hiring more women would be a win-win, since there is such a labor shortage, said Matot President Jim Piper. “I don’t care what the gender is; if a person knows what they’re doing, I’ll hire them.”
Cozart said, in terms of challenges, she has heard from women who work in the field that there is sometimes a problem getting proper personal protective equipment, such as helmets and harnesses that fit. An audience member pointed out that that’s a business opportunity for somebody. While, physically, women are capable of doing most men’s jobs, there are limitations, Dodds said. For example, she won’t allow a female field employee to perform certain tasks, such as going on a cartop, while she is pregnant.
As it always does, Vantage pulled out all the stops for its invitation-only NAEC party that night. Proof of full vaccination afforded the more-than 100 guests at this year’s iteration, held right outside the Hilton doors on the Mississippi riverfront, a feast that included raw oysters shucked right before your eyes, mini banh-mi Vietnamese poboys and an open bar serving some of the largest, strongest cocktails in the South. A crew from New Orleans Cigar Factory hand-rolled cigars for guests to either smoke or take home.
Audience members shared stories about what is happening at their companies, and spoke about vaccine mandates, vaccines versus testing, company incentives for those who are vaccinated and the consequences of not being vaccinated.
Wednesday, October 6
With the tradeshow in full swing, a definite highlight of the day was an in-depth video podcast interview your author conducted with TEI Group’s Ray Downs and Mark Staub about the success the company has found with the “Helmets to Hardhats” program, which transitions military veterans to careers in the trades.
In addition to the booths, the day included a NexGen luncheon (see sidebar) and plenty of education, including:
- “Code Requirements for Multimedia Emergency Communication” by Mark Yako of Wurtec
- “Alteration Testing Requirements — Code Data Plate” by John Rearick, Mike Hogan and Steve Romnes of MEI
- “Vertical Slide Freight Door Safety” by Michael C. Ryan of Peelle
- “Using the Pixel Control System’s Diagnostic Toolset to Gain Efficiency” by Ron Ishimoto of Vantage Elevator Solutions
- “The Nine Safety Absolutes — What Are They?” by Ray Downs of TEI Group
The evening brought a cocktail reception, then the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation (EESF) Party in an upstairs room at MCCNO. A lively crew of bartenders kept the drinks flowing as a jazz trio worked their way around the room and guests took advantage of a fun portable “photo booth.” Distinguished by an EESF New Orleans frame, pictures were immediately texted or emailed to guests. Around the room’s perimeter were desserts including local specialties such as rum bread pudding and pecan pralines. EESF Chairman of the Board Cornelius Walls took the lectern and thanked all the sponsors, EESF Program Manager Laurie Duett and board member Alison Whittaker for their help during what has been a transitional year for the organization. Walls said that 15,000 children would be helped by the money raised by the EESF party.
Thursday, October 7
The day got off to a celebratory start with the annual Awards Breakfast. Evans welcomed attendees and recognized key NAEC players, including Deputy Director Amanda Smith, who would celebrate 14 years with the organization the next day. After inviting committee and board members to stand and be recognized, Evans invited Awards Chair Craig Zomchek of Colley Elevator to the stage to present the booth awards. They were:
- Best Single: SmarTork
- Best Multiple: WORLD Electronics
- Best Island: Relayr
- Spirit of the NAEC: SCS Elevator Products.
Zomchek said although many booths stood out for their NAEC spirit, SCS’s did so in particular because of its originality. A small stuffed toy dog at the SCS booth invited attendees to help them sponsor Kona, an 8-week-old black lab puppy em-“bark”-ing on her career as a guide dog through Guide Dogs of America and Tender Loving Canines. As SCS provides accessibility products such as Braille elevator buttons, this was a clever way to highlight what they do.
The Contractors’ Choice Award was presented to The Peelle Co., and the President’s Award to John Dodds. Evans said Dodds has been instrumental in furthering the QEI program and changing NAEC member services for the better. Next, outgoing BoD members were recognized for their contributions and presented plaques, and the new BoD members were sworn in by Joe McNally.
Finally, NAEC’s most prestigious award, the William C. Sturgeon Distinguished Service Award, was presented to Champion Elevator’s Don Gelestino by Rob Masterson of Champion. Masterson described Gelestino as “a consistent and dedicated voice for the NAEC, and an ambassador who is quick to volunteer his time and advocate on the important issues.” Gelestino, Masterson said, has furthered education programs such as CET®, CAT® and VTMP. “Don has told me several times that he envisions a future where companies can turn to the NAEC as a resource for education, healthcare, legal advice and advice on challenging, everyday situations,” Masterson said. Gelestino can be credited with helping realize such NAEC benefits as HR services and the 401(k) program, he said.
In accepting the award, Gelestino compared it to the elevator industry’s Oscars or Grammys. He said he started his career in the early 1980s with nothing but “a small bag of clothes and the drive to survive.” He entered the industry out of necessity, going to work for a friend’s father’s elevator company to pay the rent. Since then, he said, he joined NAEC and “studied hard, always listened to mentors and always learned.” Of Elevator World, Inc. founder William C. Sturgeon, he said:
“Maybe I have something in common with him: He was born in the Bronx, and I sound like I’m from the Bronx. But he was a true innovator and a selfless person who came up with ideas, started companies and created EW. He wanted to, and succeeded in, sharing education and ideas with the next generation.”
Exhibits then opened again and more education was offered:
- “Challenges Involved in Replacing VPLs” by Patrick Edwards of Soft Landing Vertical Services, Inc.
- “The Good, The Bad and Ugly of the Various Types of Hydraulic Oil in Elevators” by Michael Johnson of Gorman
- “New Door-Lock Monitoring Requirements for Existing Elevators” by Peter Novak of Claddaugh Electronics
- “Digital Transformation in the Elevator Industry: The Role of Value Analysis and Customer-Centricity” by Guneet Bedi of Relayr
After exhibitors and crews dismantled displays, it was time for the annual Dregs Party sponsored by EMS Group and held offsite. As the sun set, a bus ferried guests to The Sugar Mill, an event venue housed in a 19th-century sugar warehouse across from MCCNO. Guests entered to a drum corps playing, and inside they found Mardi Gras masks on tables, classic New Orleans food such as poboys and gumbo, and 1980s music spun by a deejay. The atmosphere was relaxed, said Matt Jackson of New Jersey’s Diversified Elevator Products, and the venue was packed. — Angela C. Baldwin and Ricia Sturgeon-Hendrick contributed to this story.