Last month, I made my annual trip to the StonExpo trade show in Las Vegas, NV. And while I don’t think that trade shows provide a tell-all barometer on the state of a particular industry, I was curious to gauge the feelings and concerns of those in attendance. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to hear from the exhibitors what they were seeing from attendees at the event.

Overall, I would say that StonExpo 2008 was a relative success. To be fair, attendance seemed to be down from last year. Shops that sent three or four people last year might have only sent one or two, and maybe some skipped the event altogether (a mistake, in my opinion). But considering the typical ebb and flow of trade show floor activity, StonExpo had a respectable showing.

The fabricators I met with at StonExpo seemed to be out there to do business, looking at new products, machinery and accessories as well as stone materials, and plenty of people were out there spending money. Now, I’m not saying that I met anyone who bought three CNCs or a half-dozen bridge saws out there on the show floor, but people were investing in shop tools and accessories, and they were also looking at large-scale machinery and other long-term investments.

Most of the exhibitors I spoke with during StonExpo shared this view. Again, I should note that many of the companies exhibiting at the event had realistic expectations this year, and they understood that it’s not 2005 right now (or even 2006). But even the booths with the most expensive machinery saw their share of visitors, and I can assure you that the “tire-kickers” didn’t spend the money to come to Las Vegas this time around. It’s just not that kind of year. So hopefully, the exhibitors will see a return on their investment - now and, more importantly, over the long term.

Going beyond brief meetings with fabricators on the show floor, one of the most valuable parts of going to StonExpo for me is the chance to sit in on the Fabricator Forums to see what the “industry at large” has to say. At the sessions I attended last month, fabricators spent the bulk of the time allotment sharing practical information with one another. And by “practical information,” I mean topics such as seam placement, overhangs, material handling, setting materials, templating, etc. It wasn’t 90 minutes of fabricators lamenting over the economy and asking, “What are we going to do to stay in business?” over and over again.

To me, it seems that the majority of fabrication shop owners who were at StonExpo have learned the importance of balancing craftsmanship with business skills in order to run a successful operation. To be certain, there were plenty of fabricators at StonExpo who wanted to learn how to work within the difficult confines of today’s economy. But at the open forums, where fabricators could ask about anything they wanted, the focus seemed to be on practical issues in the shop and in the field, and not on the economy or (thankfully) on how the “radon scare” is killing their business.

So given the new, difficult landscape of today’s stone industry, I would say that there were plenty of positives at StonExpo 2008. Look for a full report on the event, with product reviews and capsules of the educational sessions, in the December 2008 issue of Stone World.