WHAT a difference a strong trailer market can make.

When the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) took its annual convention to Charleston, South Carolina, in 2009, the nation was reeling from The Great Recession, and companies were nervously clutching their purse strings.

NATM gave Charleston another chance four years later, and the results were heartening.

There were 821 attendees and 162 exhibitors, up 26% and 9% respectively from 2011 and in line with last year's convention in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The atmosphere at the show was upbeat and optimistic about the future,” NATM executive director Pam O'Toole Trusdale said. “We had good attendance. Workshops were all well attended.”

The big coup was the appearance of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator David Strickland as keynote speaker. The convention has previously featured Larry Minor, associate administrator in the Office of Policy and Program Development for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), but this was the first time for a NHTSA administrator.

“That was a huge step forward for us,” Trusdale said. “We work with K&L Gates in Washington. They extended the invitation at our behalf, and he accepted. One of the important things we've been doing is developing a relationship with folks at NHTSA and FMCSA. They've been really helpful. We have an open line of communication.

“Our problem over the years has been that trailers are motor vehicles, so often regulations are passed for motor vehicles and unintentionally include trailers when they were really intended for cars. So we've been working closely with them so we don't have those unintended consequences as we did in past. We've been proactive in communication with them, and they've been responsive and helpful. Since we've worked on that relationship, I think that's why we got the NHTSA administrator.”

Strickland praised NATM's Compliance Verification Program and the organization's working relationship with NHTSA, saying, “We do work with a lot of partners around the country and the world, and there are very few times where they actually have an aggressive organization and membership that makes the hard decision to be able to have a mandatory compliance program, which in the short term may cost you money or may cost you energy or will increase conflict, but in the long term an organization has made a decision for the safety of the driving public, and for the benefit of your association, for the health and welfare of the people who buy your trailers every single day.” (See story, “NHTSA chief lauds NATM.”)

Trusdale and the NATM staff are already nailing down details for next year's convention in Las Vegas. NATM had temporarily discontinued Las Vegas as a destination after the 2008 convention because room rates went up dramatically.

But with rates easing significantly, the convention is headed back there for the 26th Annual Trade Show & Convention February 26-28, 2014.

“It's a popular destination and it's easy to get to,” she said. “It's so much easier to get to Las Vegas than Charleston. With Charleston, it's usually two stops for people to get there. We had complaints from people who had trouble getting out of Charleston. There are not as many flights getting in and out.

“They're more likely to go to the convention if they can get a non-stop flight and get in and out quickly. There are some people who aren't big fans of Las Vegas but all in all, it's a pretty popular destination.

Find the NATM Convention Report archive with articles from 2012 to present