10 ConExpos and counting: How construction’s big show has evolved

Marcia Doyle Headshot
Updated Apr 1, 2014

ConExpo 2014

This was my 10th ConExpo.

Since the show used to be every six years, and now is every three years, that pretty much equates to dog years in Trade Editor Land. As such, I have some old codger memories of North America’s largest equipment show.

Cue creaky voiceover: It was in 1981…  and the tower-crane dominated city of Houston hosted its—and last—ConExpo in the now partially demolished Astrodome area. Even though the industry was on the cusp of a deep recession there were signs of cluelessness.

The once-mighty International Harvester, which would break up in a few short years, spent a massive amount shuttling hundreds of attendees from Houston to its new proving grounds near Phoenix, Arizona. And traffic gridlock made it miserable to travel any distance around Houston, putting a crimp on offsite events.

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But as I walked into the main hall, this then-newbie was intimidated by the size of the exhibits and equipment, even though it now seems like such a tame, domesticated show.

Then there was 1986, and it was Vegas, baby, with the show finding its permanent home. Caterpillar went from black velvet curtains in Houston (rivals snickered that it looked like a funeral parlor) to bright colors and waterfall pizzazz courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering. Those bright colors were reflected in attitudes, as contractors were in full recovery from what they thought would be the worst recession they’d ever see.

The show’s present three-year cycle started in 1993, which was also marked by a boycott of major manufacturers, giving an entrée to those who did have big iron to show—notably the Korean manufacturers who had started marketing in the United States.

The absence of the majors did not sit well with contractors. “I did not attend ConExpo to see computers, typewriters and hand tools,” groused one of our readers at the time. “Does one bulldozer constitute a worldwide construction expo?”

The show added the “ConAgg” to its name in 1996, and Equipment World launched its website right before the doors opened. Good for a chuckle now: I bragged about our editors posting a show report on the new site “a day after the show closed.”

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As the Las Vegas Convention Center has added square footage, including the am-I-ever-going-to-get-through-it South Hall, exhibitors upped the ways they enticed the growing numbers of attendees – from 124,260 in 1999 to the peak of 144,600 in 2008.

There were safari outposts, Stomp shows, celebrity visits, equipment rodeos and sand sculptures… anything to get you in the booth.

And what about 2014? If there’s such a thing as a one-word dominated show, it would be Telematics, followed by its first cousin, Technology.

Chinese manufacturers also made good on their 2011 show promise to continue their inroads here, and now one American-based company is proposing ways to address the lack of comfort U.S. contractors have about buying these deeply discounted machines.

Many veterans, moi included, call this year’s show the best ever. To get a true sense how crazy good it was to be at this event, check out our coverage by clicking here.

How about you? I’d love to hear your memories about ConExpo, especially if they go back further than mine!