Wednesday, 21 November 2012 17:10

My Crazed 36 Hours at SEMA

The late writer Hunter S. Thompson (known as the father of “gonzo journalism” and a long-time contributor to Rolling Stone magazine) wrote that he feared and loathed Las Vegas, yet he consistently returned there to get in various forms of trouble and test the limits of acceptable behavior. Thompson would have loved SEMA and other automotive industry shows, because they’re great events for reporters to cover and offer a wide range of opportunities to get into mischief.

I know, because I have covered quite a few of these shows for many years as a freelance writer specializing in collision repair. I’m proud to say I survived them all. One year, I covered three in a row—SEMA, AAPEX and NACE, all in Las Vegas—and it nearly killed me. I know firsthand why many shops never attempt this schedule. After eight crazy 15-hour days and walking show floors for miles, I came down with a kind of walking pneumonia, which sidelined me for several weeks afterward.


I’m not saying shows like SEMA aren’t fun. In fact, they’re a blast, but they can also be exhausting and if you don’t pace yourself, you can get sick just like I did. Because industry shows, in many ways, are races with the clock running. You have a lot to achieve in a very limited period of time (in SEMA’s case, five days), coupled with a plethora of fun events—like dinners, shows, cocktail parties, luncheons and even some wining and dining of clients or colleagues, in many instances.

Show burnout is a common ailment. Too little sleep, not enough liquids (or maybe too many of the wrong type), sleep exchanged for gambling or other endeavors, too much walking in the opposite direction, fast food, caffeine and sugar, and it all leads to either mental or physical exhaustion if not handled properly.

Peter MacGillivray is the vice-president of events and communications for SEMA. He has attended every show since 1987, so he has stories to tell and advice to offer.

To avoid the feared SEMA burnout scenario, MacGillivray shares a few helpful tips. “We tell our people to get humidifiers and put them in their hotel rooms,” he said. “The air here in Las Vegas is very dry, so it will help them to sleep. I always have one running in my room. Also get comfortable shoes, because you’re going to be walking miles and miles. And dress comfortably. We loosened up our dress code for SEMA employees two years ago and got rid of those suits. Now our staff wears button-down shirts and they look and feel much more relaxed.”

When you think about it, everyone at SEMA has a different agenda. As a writer, I need to find interesting things to write about. As an exhibitor, your goal is to sell product and meet with as many customers as you possibly can in a very limited time. As a body shop owner, you want to learn about all of the newest products out there in the market and purchase the ones that are right for your business. Since SEMA is not open to the general public (although many sneak in) everybody here has a distinct motive and plays a unique role.

Trying to find a particular booth is like playing the board game Battlefield. I was guessing most of the time and walking in exactly the long direction without fail. Every time I was in the North Hall, the next booth I wanted to visit was in the South Hall. I know SEMA has its own app, but why can’t they invent a GPS for directionally-challenged people like me? A handheld unit telling you that booth 17884 is approximately eight miles from where you’re currently standing and maybe design a route for you so you don’t have to zig-zag all over the Las Vegas Convention Center would be nice.

One topic that seems to come up every year at SEMA involves the use of attractive (usually scantily clad) women to help exhibitors as they promote their products and services. Do they attract the kind of customers companies want, or are people simply flocking to your booth to ogle these beautiful ladies? MacGillivray explained that it’s a Catch-22, because the women will create traffic. But does it result in sales and/or can it damage the company’s reputation?

“We encourage exhibitors to let their products speak for themselves. Anyone is going to appreciate a beautiful woman standing next to a car, lift or paint booth—but is it really beneficial to your bottom line? Many companies still use them and report it’s a useful marketing vehicle, but lately more and more are moving away from that strategy.”

Celebrities are a big part of SEMA—with many doing appearances. MacGillivray said, “We get the big names who want to attend and in most cases, they get in. Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Snoop Dogg, the guys from ZZ Top, race announcer Dave McClelland, the “Voice of NHRA,” and many more apply for tickets and we always accommodate them because they add a little buzz to the whole affair.”

I always like to go around and see the celebrities representing exhibitors at their booths. This year I met former football star William “The Refrigerator” Perry (representing a company called Big Ass Fans), comic/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, race drivers Danica Patrick (she’s even prettier in person and talked to me for at least 10 minutes), Dario Franchitti (3-time Indy 500 winner) and Mario Andretti; “The King of the Kustomizers” George Barris, the legendary custom car builder Gene Winfield and all of what I call the “paint/rebuilder stars” such as Mitch and Tom Kelly from Crazy Paint, Chip Foose, Rich Evans (who appeared at no less than five different booths) and Mickey Harris. Meeting them is always a thrill and every time I like to ask them at least one fun question.

Any interest in tackling a buffet after the show? I asked the Fridge. (He chuckled, but declined). Are you smarter than the dummy? I asked Jeff Dunham. (He smiled weakly—not my best question, I admit). Wasn’t the original Batmobile just a Lincoln Futura with a few bells and whistles? I asked George Barris. (He agreed.)

Overall, I would have to say that my 36 hours of SEMA was a fun and fruitful adventure. When I got back from the show, my wife asked me ‘Did everything stay in Vegas?’ I thought about it and told her at this stage in my life the only thing I left in Sin City was my phone charger and about 200 business cards, most of which are probably already residing in trash containers. Oh well. At least I did win enough money playing poker to pay for my trip and got this fun story assignment as well. See you next year at SEMA.


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