The attendance at conventions and trade shows can tell you a lot about the economy and the state of the industry.

It's another busy month for the SNIPS staff as we start our annual cross-country convention trek.

Conventions for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association and the Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International will take place during the last two weeks of October. Ditto for the Fabtech and Metalcon trade shows.

The back-to-back - and sometimes overlapping - events will keep us living out of our suitcases and running through airports.

I'm jokingly calling it "SNIPS' U.S. Tour 2004," since we'll be going through Cleveland, Chicago, Las Vegas and Maui, Hawaii. But I'm not complaining, since it's hard to get any sympathy when people find out you've got a free trip to Hawaii.

Attending trade shows and conventions is a time-consuming and often tiring task, but one I enjoy and believe is very important. Besides being an opportunity to see new products and meet with readers, conventions and trade shows are often a barometer on the health of an industry.

For example, in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., attendance at many conventions was sparse. Metalcon's show in Las Vegas that October drew 2,000 fewer people than the 2000 Atlanta show. And Metalcon wasn't alone: The whole city was still reeling from a big drop in tourist and business visitors during what's traditionally Las Vegas' busiest time of year.

SMACNA had the misfortune to hold its 2001 show in Boca Raton, Fla., just weeks after the editor of a supermarket tabloid newspaper based there died after opening a letter containing anthrax.

The National Air Filtration Association didn't even try, canceling its annual meeting days after the attacks.

The economy was already in decline before the terrorists hit, but they certainly didn't make many people very interested in travel or spending money.

But in the last three years, attendance at many shows has rebounded, although there was still some grumbling from exhibitors about the disappointing floor traffic at this year's AHR Expo in Anaheim, Calif.

Despite the spin some public relations people try to put on the numbers, attendance always speaks to the health of trade shows, and economy in general. When times are good, companies send more people to such events. Many companies use convention trips as a reward to good employees. Of course, they also use them to shop for new equipment, which makes exhibitors happy.

With the U.S. economy showing real, although not always strong, signs of recovery, I expect healthy attendance at this fall's HVAC and sheet metal trade shows. Metalcon is back in Las Vegas, and the city has completely recovered from the Sept. 11 fallout. HARDI is in Chicago, and its central location means shows always draw well - just ask the AHR Expo's organizers: They like the city so much, they go there every three years.

Speaking of the economy's recovery, I'd like to know your thoughts. Our annual business-outlook issue usually features predictions from pundits, who have been saying much the same thing for the last three years: things are getting better. That's fine, but how's your sheet metal business? Where do you think the economy is heading? I'd like to include some of your responses in an article for our December issue.

Analysts can cite all the statistics and reports they want, but what matters to most business owners is how they're doing. Some contractors have told me they barely felt the recession of the last three years, while others scrambled for survival.

Write me at BNP Media, SNIPS magazine, 2401 W. Big Beaver Road, Suite 700, Troy, MI 48084. You can also e-mail me at mcconnellm@bnpmedia.com. Please include your name, company and contact information.