Requiem for Pinnacle Conference

September 1, 2006 By    

LP Gas Magazine Editor Pat Hyland’s Viewpoint column (Pinnacle No More) in the July issue rang quite a few bells with this veteran of 25 years of propane industry trade shows and annual meetings. All the more so as I was one of the principals involved in the decision to transition from the old annual meeting with trade show to Pinnacle.

Dan Myers
Dan Myers

I would like to reflect on some of those decisions and the changes within the propane industry over the last 30 years that they reflect.

It’s best to start with a bit of historical correction. Pat began his essay, “Like the annual meeting in Chicago and the Northeast Convention before it,” Pinnacle is now history. The Chicago annual meeting, which predated the Northeast Convention by decades, was a staple of the old Liquefied Petroleum Gas Association going back to the 1950s.

That convention and trade show, which attracted crowds in the thousands, was held for many years at the Chicago Hilton on Michigan Avenue. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the annual meeting moved out of Chicago to Las Vegas. It was such a hit that it became a traveling show, visiting Los Angeles, Dallas, Baltimore, Boston and other locales around the country, pleasing many who had been unable or unwilling to travel to Chicago.

This continued until the early 1990s when two incompatible events caught up with National Propane Gas Association.

First was industry consolidation. As acquisitions and mergers became the norm, and as companies began to consolidate staffs, they sent fewer people to these industry shows. Think about it: two companies, each with their own management, marketing, and engineering staffs used to bring 15, 20 or more employees to the annual convention. When they combined as one company, those numbers were cut in half. In almost every instance, the numbers were reduced even further as these new corporate entities, seeking further economies, began to outsource activities that used to be handled in-house.

The second, and wholly incompatible, development was an expansion in the number of trade shows.

For many years, the state associations in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania operated a regional convention with a trade show called the Tri-State Convention. These shows, held in places like Rye, N.Y., and Hershey, Pa., attracted many local marketers and their families from throughout the tri-state region every September. In the mid-1980s, NPGA took over management of the Tri-State, turning it into a regional convention to represent NPGA Districts 9 and 10, from Virginia to Maine and west to the Ohio/Pennsylvania border.

At about the same time, NPGA, with the help of the upper Midwestern states, had started a North Central Convention and trade show in Minneapolis. Texas and the other Southwestern states had for many years held a Southwestern Convention and Trade Show that alternated every year with their individual state meetings. It later became an annual convention and trade show.

Meanwhile, the Western Propane Gas Association had been operating a successful convention and trade show for many years in California, with occasional forays to Reno or Las Vegas. Of course, the NPGA Southeastern Convention had been a staple of springtime in Atlanta for 30 years and was still going strong.

In short, the industry had a recipe for disaster: too many trade shows chasing a dwindling number of marketer attendees, with the non-marketers picking up most of the tab.

Thus, during a particularly disastrous show in Chicago, a plan for a new annual meeting was floated. A principal element was to eliminate the trade show portion of the annual meeting and put all of NPGA’s eggs in the Southeastern basket, building up that show as the preeminent propane trade show in the world.

Another was to create cutting-edge seminars with top-notch speakers who would deliver to senior management the knowledge they needed to grow and expand their businesses.

Pinnacle, as it was to be called, would reach for the highest peaks, both in terms of the quality and caliber of its participants (speakers and attendees) and in the information presented. It would include the NPGA annual meeting and a full, working board meeting that previously had been only a brief, relaxed affair devoted to the annual election of officers.

The program was intended to be a magnet for non-marketer suppliers who could have quality time to network with these leaders over lunches, receptions, dinners, in private meetings and on the golf course. No longer would non-marketers be confined to a trade show booth.

One vital element of this plan was never implemented. In order to build the Southeastern Convention as the premier trade show, it was important to reduce the number of other trade shows. NPGA controlled the Northeast and the North Central shows, but the Southwestern and Western were controlled by the state associations in those regions. When NPGA cancelled the North Central show, a new Midwestern Convention was created.

Learning a lesson from the Midwest that nature abhors a vacuum, NPGA continued the Northeast Convention far beyond its useful life. We were always concerned that another trade show would be created to take its place.

As an inducement for the states to discontinue their regional trade shows – or to at least hold them biennially instead of annually – NPGA was to provide speakers and seminar topics for “Mini-Pinnacles,” that would appeal to mid-level management. However, this part of the plan died.

So now, 11 years later, it’s again time for change. Some thoughts and recommendations from an old-timer:

It’s time to close down Pinnacle. Past attendees seem to keep coming back, but the program hasn’t attracted many new devotees. There may be a myriad of reasons why this is so, but that’s unimportant. Pinnacle has been given plenty of chances to succeed and it hasn’t. Flush it.

Keynote speakers and topical seminars are now to be added to the Southeastern Convention. It’s worth a try, but a note of caution: For 25 years, I heard that the Southeastern Convention is a “business” show. Deals are done. Trades are made. Exhibitors make sales. If the industry’s dynamics – due to the Internet or consolidations or whatever – have changed, then the Southeastern should change. But, be careful not to kill the golden goose.

The NPGA board meeting, election of officers and inaugural events will be moved to Washington to coincide with Propane Days in May. Pat reports that Propane Days attendance dropped from 300 to 150 attendees in one year. This is not surprising.

In 1985, I organized a Governmental Affairs Conference that was to be a biennial “industry march on Washington” to lobby legislators and regulators. I experienced the same precipitous drop in attendance in subsequent years as is now being experienced with Propane Days.

Why? Because unless the industry has a major problem, the rank and file members have confidence in their paid staff and elected leaders to take care of these problems. Their reason: Why should I spend my money to go talk to my Congressman when our association staff has everything under control?

Combining these events is a good idea, but don’t expect huge numbers to turn out to lobby their Congressmen. It just won’t happen.

The biggest concern is that these plans risk ignoring three-quarters of the nation. If all of the association’s major events are in Washington and Atlanta, what about Dallas, Denver and Duluth? How about Los Angeles, Lubbock and Lansing?

I remember once, in the context of a totally different proposal, being accused by the director from the great state of Wisconsin of “cocooning” in Lisle, Ill. NPGA should take care that it doesn’t “cocoon” in Washington. There is life outside the Beltway, believe it or not.

Change is healthy, especially when organizations become so encrusted with tradition that they become moribund. And, clearly, all of the signals indicate that change is needed in the industry’s mix of meetings and trade shows. But, in implementing change, caution and care should be exercised.

Winston Churchill was a man known for his opinions on most everything, but he was never averse to change if the situation dictated or if he were proven wrong. An implacable foe of Communism, he was quick to embrace the Soviet Union as an ally in 1941 when they were attacked by Hitler’s Nazi hordes. When queried on this sudden change of heart, he said: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

I wish NPGA and the propane industry well as they refer to their own devils. After all, the devil is in the details.

Dan Myers is a member of the LP Gas Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.
He worked for 25 years as chief lobbyist and chief staff executive for the National Propane Gas Association until his retirement in December of 2002.

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