Before heading down to the International WorkBoat show in New Orleans in early December 2012, I had some preconceived notions about the show. Having never been to a show for the waterways industry, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
As a new entrant to the waterways industry, I must confess I am trying to get up to speed with the key issues driving the inland waterways business. Having dozens of conversations with various people and companies involved in the business has given me a bit of a flavor for the industry. However, talking to people on the phone about news, trends and issues is far different than going to a show where thousands of people would be gathering to network with one other, hear the hottest gossip in the business and find out about new products and services available for vessels and ports.
As I chatted in advance of the conference with contacts who were going to be attending the three-day extravaganza, I envisioned a somewhat bleak event that would be dominated by the problems with the drought, a slowing economy and other general negativity.
While these were some of my perceptions coming into the show, in reality, the general mood of attendees and exhibitors was fairly optimistic—not Pollyannaish in nature, but one steeped in many years of experience with the changing nature of the inland waterways business.
While the near term presents challenges for inland shippers, attendees and exhibitors expressed an appreciable bullishness about the longer-term prospects of the industry. Inland shippers may decry the lack of funding from Washington, D.C., to assist in shoring up many much-needed projects or the difficulties created by the drought in the last year, but these same shippers have learned to operate in an environment where the challenges appear to be many and of a changing nature.
Yes, the impact that the drought has had on parts of the inland waterways system was and continues to be a source of concern. However, in reflecting on the changing nature of the inland shipping business, many attendees also pointed out to me that the drought came one year after heavy rains created flooding problems in the same area, which also had an impact on their businesses.
As for the exhibitors, my initial trepidation of being considered an outsider by the hundreds of companies showcasing their products couldn’t have been further from reality. I found a highly knowledgeable group of industry representatives who were willing and able to reach out to help a newbie.
Yes, there are challenges to the inland shipping industry presently. In fact, by most measures, there will always be challenges to the industry. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a Goldilocks time when everything falls into place. More likely, the changing environment will reward the most dynamic, innovative and efficient firms operating in this sector.
And that, when it comes down to it, is all any company should ask for.