Charles Fairbairn attended ConExpo in Las Vegas this year and files his report.
LAS VEGAS IS THE centre of the universe when it comes to convention centres and big time events.
The city of neon lights hosts 22,000 conventions per year, or five to six per day. Most barely register on the city’s maniacal pulse.
However, ConExpo-ConAgg, the machinery and construction equipment show hosted by American Equipment Machinery (AEM) is a different proposition.
Excitement levels prior to the show kicked in when I and other Kiwi delegates were somewhere on the edge of Nevada airspace, on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco. The pilot spoke like a boxing promoter over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen shortly we’ll begin our descent into Laaas Vegaaas…”
There was time to get settled at the Flamingo hotel on the famous Strip and see some of the city action before work duties kicked in. City by-laws allow adults to carry alcoholic drinks in public and the vibe was one of mellow enjoyment. I booked some shows to see during the week, and these warrant a separate comment.
What I did notice was signs, in malls and on neon billboards, welcoming ConExpo delegates to the 2017 show.
I arrived by taxi on the first day to the venue and found myself one of 120,000 delegates exploring floor space covering 2.5 million square feet (as the Americans say), and saw the sheer scale of this show first-hand. Spread across six halls and open arenas, 2500 vendors were set up in booths and begging for business.
Some of the booths covered so much floor space they had customer service desks and a floor-plan for navigating directions. The big equipment manufacturers Cat, Volvo, Komatsu and Hitachi were all based in one large hall with a lay-out that must have taken months to choreograph.
Luring delegates to participate or engage was easy when you had a virtual reality experience to offer. I ticked ‘Operating a horizontal drill’ and ‘Operating at height’ off my bucket list.
And it was good to bump into fellow Kiwis. Michael White from Equipment Share was working the floor like a pro when I located his booth. Jeremy Doherty and Bevan Zachan from Doherty Attachments stopped by for a chat, and on the exodus home I met Matt Bloy from CB Civil and Drainage.
After day one I was a wreck, having walked 15 kilometres, my feet were hot and sore, and my head was spinning. The overall mood probably accounted for much of what I was experiencing. A fellow publisher had likened the mood and access to industry information to a ‘turkey shoot’ and AEM had circulated a press release stating that equipment sales in North America had contributed US$416 million to the economy in 2016.
This was a large, exuberant crowd, doing business in a friendly confident fashion. If you get the chance to ever go to this event in the future don’t hesitate.
Viva Las Vegas! City of shows
My accommodation in Las Vegas was at the Flamingo, in the middle of The Strip.
Locals call it the Flaming-O and like all the casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard, it’s hard to turn off from the fascinating flow of people coming and going.
It’s bloody noisy outside too and I needed earplugs to get to sleep, despite being on the 10th floor.
At least the Flaming-O was a normal looking building, not trying to pass itself off as a pyramid, a Venetian palace, an east coast American city or a Roman market place.
Vegas has major problems with credit card fraud and identity theft.
My driver’s licence has more fingerprints after one week than in the 28 years prior to which I’ve been a licensed driver. Buying a coffee or the newspaper? You need a photo ID. Buying a coffee at the same place three days consecutively? You need a photo ID.
Driver’s licence requests and sleep issues aside, I found spare time to see plenty of the city outside conference commitments.
At any one time there will be world-class acts performing in town, either long term gigs or short-term residencies. Musicians, magicians and troupes of dancers entertain the crowds every night.
I saw two shows and went to a couple of exhibitions and museums.
The first was an adult circus show called Zumanity and performed by Cirque du Soleil. It was promoted as an R-18 rated affair. It was a bit of a waste of money to be honest and things could go further than watching flexible ladies swilling around in a large champagne glass or a dwarf with anger management issues being dangled from a trapeze.
The second live show, also a Cirque du Soleil affair, was a Michael Jackson tribute show, and was as memorable as Zumanity was tawdry.
A young bunch of dancers performed some sensational dance routines and a hologram of Jacko accompanied them at the curtain call.
At the same time, in the same casino (The Mandalay), a lesser-known artist named Billy Idol was also playing.
Las Vegas was built, at least partially, by money laundering mobsters, so it was well worthwhile going to the Mobster Museum. Located in old Las Vegas, a few miles north of the Strip, I learned that crime doesn’t pay.
Also on my activity list was a visit to the Luxor casino to see the RMS Titanic – a show based on items that had been removed from the wreck site.
In a town built on escaping reality, I was going against the flow in getting poignant over corroded bed-pans and reading glasses extracted from the bottom of the Atlantic.
Getting around the city was easy, and I used Uber or hailed a cab to visit two nearby shopping malls.
After five nights I was starting to fade, so it was timely to exit after a full schedule.
A vertiginous stroll
The state of Nevada is home to the Hoover Dam, one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
While I was sampling the future of civil construction at ConExpo, I was also up for a monument tour.
The dam is only 30 kilometres away from Las Vegas and without it there would be no city in the otherwise dry Mojave Desert.
For visitors to the city of neon, the dam is a must-visit. Built during the Great Depression to contain the Colorado River, the structure is a symbol of American civil construction advancement and, 81 years on from its commissioning, is still a damn fine spectacle.
I engaged a local tour company and did a half day trip. I’d advise doing a pre-organised tour if you want to fully appreciate the visit. Plus, tour parties get taken inside to see the electric turbines.
We also walked across the top of the structure and peered over the steep sides. It’s a vertiginous stroll.
This was no ordinary worksite. A town (Boulder City) was built nearby to house the 5000 workers during the project.
During the dam’s construction the thermometer would regularly crack 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), yet work continued around the clock.
Officially, 96 workers died during the build. Yet this was at the height of the Great Depression, and workers could earn good money.
There’s a two-lane road across the top of the dam structure, with Nevada one side and the state of Arizona on the other.
Looking up river you can see Lake Mead, the large reservoir created by the dam. If our Rob Muldoon had ‘Think Big’ strategy for large-scale industrial projects back in the 1970s, then Herbert Hoover had a ‘Think Huge’ strategy.
Lake Mead has a surface area of 640 square kilometres and the dam’s massive turbines generate enough power ever year to supply 1.4 million homes.
Until as recently as 2010 interstate traffic used the road atop the structure, meaning visitors to the monument were negotiating serious traffic while simultaneously genuflecting on American construction achievements.
A concrete span bridge, officially titled the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, now spans the river gorge high away from the dam road.
If a 20th century concrete monument fails you as a spectacle, then the world’s highest concrete arch bridge provides some 21st century relief.