I returned a few days ago from the 2009 ASA Convention in Washington, DC. It was maybe the best one I’ve ever attended!

Yes, I know, attendance was way, way down among wholesalers, vendors and reps alike. The economy is awful, there is no more trade show or alliance with the PHCC convention and gloom has spread far and wide throughout the industry as a whole. And yet …

I can’t help but think of the old saying about making lemonade out of lemons. Despite everything going against them, this year’s ASA convention had some of the best content in memory. I left every session feeling enlightened and intellectually stimulated. I’ll be writing more about ASA’s programs in the weeks to come, but for now here’s a quick sketch of the speakers and sessions that made me feel so enthused.

  • The Industrial Piping Division hired a crackerjack speaker for its opening breakfast session. Karen Harbert, a former high ranking official at DOE, is CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. She gave an excellent rundown of the quest for renewable energy - and why it likely is shaping up as a pipe dream.

  • David Kohler, Kohler Co.’s president and COO, was the keynote speaker and surprised me with his astute economic analysis and the implications for our industry. His name alone would’ve enabled him to get away with a shallow platitude-filled speech, but instead he laid it on the line. We’re in for many years of slow recovery, and he explained why in detail. At the same time, he gave examples of distributors who are acting entrepreneurial despite the slump.

  • Luncheon speaker George Will is my all-time favorite pundit. Erudite and clever, he exhaustively researches his topics and could recite the alphabet and make it sound interesting. Will covered much more ground than that, however, including offering a solution to our Social Security fiscal mess that is as simple as it is politically impossible to achieve.

  • Preceding Will to the podium was ASA’s longtime legislative lobbyist Patrick O’Conner. He didn’t give a speech but simply offered a set of instructions to the scores of ASA members who would be spending the rest of the afternoon on Capitol Hill talking up ASA’s priorities, which included a threat to repeal LIFO, card check legislation, cap and trade and several other legislative issues that could prove crippling to business.
    I was impressed with the sophistication of ASA’s lobbying efforts, and even more so after spending a couple of hours on a visit with the Pennsylvania delegation for a meeting with aides to that state’s Senators Arlen Specter and Ike Casey. Their arguments were strong, well reasoned and, as best I could tell, mostly well received by the senatorial staffers. A scheduling snafu had the aides meeting with the large ASA contingent in a hallway of the Senate’s Hart Office Building.
    In some ways that was a blessing, as the informal setting gave an atmosphere more of casual conversation than a lobbying effort. (Sen. Specter was said to be tied up. At one point he passed by the group in the hall and quickly averted his eyes. I never thought much of him. Now I think even less.)

  • “Peer Networking Survival Sessions” was the name given to an hour-and-half session devoted to roundtables of ASA members discussing topics of concern to their businesses, guided by well-known consultant Adam Fein. I sat at one of these tables and learned stuff I didn’t know and/or had never thought of about running a PHCP supply business. I came away appreciating that ASA’s membership includes some very astute business leaders and thinkers.

  • Economist Alan Beaulieu was the featured speaker at an ASA Future Trends Luncheon on the convention’s second day. I don’t know why I like this guy, because his message is one of unrelenting gloom. His words from Jan. 2008, when I heard him speak at an NAW Executive Summit, still ring loudly in my ears: “A recession is coming by year’s end, and it may be a bad one.” His outlook for the next few years is not exactly cheerful either. Yet, he’s one of the few economists who can speak without putting you to sleep, even when reviewing stuffy data. He’s also been painfully correct.

  • Steve Maxwell, a writer/consultant specializing in the environmental and water industries, gave a presentation at a “Future Trends Strategy Session” sponsored by the IPD. To be candid, he wasn’t a very dynamic speaker but his content was sound. The title of his program, “Water: The Next Oil,” pretty much says it all.
  • Evening entertainment on the second day was an “Industry Interchange” event in which wholesalers vied for play money at vendor-hosted games of chance. The money was exchanged for raffle tickets for some pretty snazzy prizes. Every convention needs a little fun and games, and this event provided exactly that. The grub was good, too. In fact, I heard many attendees express delight with the banquet meals offered at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington.

    Trade associations everywhere, whether in this industry or others, are all searching for ways to boost attendance and participation at their meetings. Here’s a tip: don’t insult peoples’ intelligence. Book speakers and programs that stimulate the intellect. When budgets are tight, look for speakers and seminar leaders from within your own industry, many of whom will waive a fee.

    People can find entertainment anywhere. It’s only at an industry convention where they can find a plethora of information about their particular business concerns, and that should be the focus of industry program planners.