Vision 11, Las Vegas
“How about we rent some Harleys and ride to the Hoover Dam with our bitches on the back?” It was a text message from Dwayne, our US distributor The Fox Company’s (factory trained) technical guru… a message which I should perhaps not show Geraldine, my “bitch”. She was at the wheel of our modest hire car driving down Route 66 (on the wrong side of the road) towards Las Vegas and the International Window Coverings Expo, Vision 11.
It seemed like a case of “When in Vegas, do as the Vegans do”. In a few moments, we had two Harley Fat Boys booked for the following day.
Because the Vision 11 trade show started the day after Easter (actually on Anzac day which for a few historical reasons, the Americans don’t celebrate), Geraldine and realhealthmethod.com I thought we might as well spend the Easter break in the US rather than in Australia and had gone over early.
We’d spent four days travelling around deserts and the canyons… Zion, Bryce and the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. You’d think Australia might have enough deserts and we've got a few canyons… well perhaps gorges… but they’re not as famous as the US versions are they?
Canyons and deserts USA (at least at ground level) was a first time for both of us and to say that we were gob-smacked would be a huge understatement. The country is on a vast, huge scale, something we just don’t see in Australia… or almost any other country I’ve visited for that matter. The US national parks are very well organised, catering equally for conservation and all sorts of recreation.
In comparison, much of Las Vegas seemed an anticlimax… at least at first. Almost everything I knew about Vegas came from two sources… Hunter Thompson’s book “Fear and camino real mental health Loathing in Las Vegas” and the film “One from the Heart”. And although a lot of Vegas is every bit as weird as in Fear and Loathing, I found it surprising that I could see no mention Fear and Loathing or Hunter Thompson in Vegas.
Aeronaut’s Dwayne Savage from the Fox Company had spent some time in Vegas and looking at the strip and finding it a bit wanting, he and Fox's John Downie took us down to downtown Fremont Street, the old part of Vegas. Here are the cheaper casinos, neon lights and a huge pedestrian mall covered with a simply enormous canopy of a million neon lights programmed with a giant sound and light show. The area probably dates from the 50s and 60s but his was everything I remembered from the film One from the Heart and for me, is the best part of Las Vegas. A theme park to trash and bad taste!
If you’ve been to R+T in Germany or BMAA on the Gold Coast, then a US trade show might be a bit of a let-down. R+T it ain’t! There are no million Euro stands, no thousands of visitors and very little of glitz and glamour you might expect, especially in Vegas. On the other hand, the visitors are positive, up-vibe and focussed compared with the more suspicious visitors you see at some European trade shows.
The window furnishings business in the US is very diverse and quite different to the Australian one. For a start, there’s a huge difference in climate between Chicago and Miami and this demands a different approach… insulation from the cold is as important as controlling light and privacy. Another factor is that America is quite conservative and that, coupled with the large numbers of old buildings and houses means that traditional window furnishings, ornate curtains, drapes, pelmets and swags are common. So it is not surprising to see that many of stands showing products which are not seen in Australia and demonstrations on how to recreate products like Victorian curtains and upholstered padded headboards at the show.
Nevertheless there are plenty to look at in modern window coverings, even though there is little which would surprise most Australian manufacturers. There are a lot of two and three layer blind systems, like Whisper, which can be used horizontally or vertically to control light and some innovative and complex textiles being shown by US, European and Korean fabric manufacturers. Perhaps the biggest “new” things at the show were our cutter and a Chinese flexible curtain track system.
It’s not a great time to be trying to sell anything to the USA, partly since their economy is slow and partly because the exchange rate is not in our favour, but fortunately Aeronaut has a stronger background in the window furnishings industry than almost any other automated cutter manufacturer and we’ve developed unique technology such as the Elektron Ultra machines and dedicated software which others can’t match.
There were two results of this. One was that we had a constant stream of very qualified visitors to our stand wanting explanations of X/Y ultrasonic cutting and carbohealth.com full demonstrations of software and hardware. The other result was that one or two competitors who have not developed the technology to crush cut and cut ultrasonically on a flatbed table were shall we say, muddying the water with customers and disputing our claims, presumably while they try and play catch-up!
Fortunately some of our larger US customers were exhibiting and others attending so we were able to answer a lot of questions from visitors by referring them to customers. Unlike in Australia, where our labour costs are high, the US has a pool of low-cost labour and the economies of manufacturing window blinds there are quite different. The cost and efficiency of a machine has to be compared with low-cost labour. It’s always a good show when you sell the machine off your trade show stand and we did at Vision 11… apart from anything else, it makes packing up so much simpler!
After Vegas, we had to visit a prospective customer on the east coast who is involved in NASA work. We were given a partial tour around the factory… partial because we were foreigners and not allowed to see a lot of the plant! At one point were were trouping down a corridor and saw through the window a most amazing thing… hanging from a wire in the roof to counter the weight of the rig, was a woman in a complete NSA spacesuit, plumbed into a thick umbilical carrying air-conditioning and comms.
She gave us a friendly wave and then carried on with fatigue testing the arm joints of the suit while we stood looking on like a group of school kids, in complete dribbling awe of the sight! We got to see some if what goes into the manufacture of a glove for one of these suits. There are hundreds of tiny fabric pieces which are sewn together to form the inner mit which is covered by more layers designed to resist pressure and for cooling, finishing with the outermost micro-meteoroid protection layer. Another gob-smacking experience.
So what about the Harleys? It’s a while since Geraldine has been on a motorbike and neither of us has ever been close to a Harley. Geraldine was born at a time when being called a bitch meant something else! Not even Dwayne and his partner had ever ridden a Harley. It was to be a new experience in more ways than one.
I have to state from the outset, that I am not a Harley fan. For me as some sort of design engineer, it’s a triumph of marketing style over substance… selling an bike with 1950’s technology in 2011 is an achievement only matched by India still selling the 1950s Royal Enfield. So different from the NASA space suit.
Things started to go wrong when they handed us the ‘50‘s style pudding-basin helmets that Harley riders use to cover their “brains”. Some 10 minutes down the road, I asked Geraldine to make sure she looked suitably tough. She replied that there was no problem with that, in fact she was going to be looking mean and tough for some days to come.
After another few miles, she pulled the plug and said she could not ride any further. Mainly this was a attack of nerves, with the lack of protective clothing and ineffectual helmets… but I was OK with that and offered to ride back and return with the hire car. In the end, all four of us returned the bikes after 45 minutes on the road. When the guy at the Harley shop asked what went wrong, I replied “The bars shake at speed, no way can you do a smooth gear change, the brakes don’t work, it won’t go round corners, it rattles and vibrates…” He laughed and said “What do you want? It’s a Harley! And I ride a Yamaha.” I didn't mention that I've owned Ducatis for the last 30 years or so.
So that’s America… Harleys and NASA. The ancient and the modern living uneasily side by side… which equally applies to what we saw at Vision 11. You might not get far in Australia offering Victorian style drapes and we can probably teach them a thing or two about modern window furnishings and how to put them together economically without low-cost labour. It’s a difficult time to be an Australian exporter, so thank goodness that in some industries, we’re ahead of the game!