For a good economic indicator of the industry, just take a look at recent trade shows.

I don't know how musicians and politicians do it. I've just returned - exhausted - from the two-week trade-show "tour" I wrote about in my October editorial.

After attending the Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International's show in Chicago, Metalcon in Las Vegas, and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association's annual convention in Maui, Hawaii, traveling thousands of miles and through three time zones, I have a new respect for touring recording artists and campaigning politicians who regularly traverse the country, all while seeming alert and energetic.

I certainly wasn't. By my fourth day in Maui, I was ready to nod off by 8 p.m. or so. But I still had a great time visiting the idyllic island, as well as Las Vegas and Chicago, two of my favorite cities.

Meeting readers and attending trade shows, while tiring, is something I enjoy. It's also a good way to gauge the health of industries, both in show attendance and the demeanor of booth staff. At one show I attended in 2001, customer traffic was so slow that more than one exhibitor complained it wasn't worth their time or money to attend. Another time, when I asked for attendance figures, I was stalled and transferred to another person because something as simple as attendance was a sensitive subject - a signal the numbers weren't good.

Improvements

But as I've been writing about for several months now, trade-show attendance and the moods of booth staff members have been improving. Metalcon just released the figures from its Oct. 20-22 show in Las Vegas. Officials with the metal-building event said 7,156 were on hand, an 8 percent increase over 2003's Tampa, Fla., show, which also saw an attendance spike after two years of disappointing numbers.

Increasing attendance isn't the only good news. Some sheet metal companies are reporting that sales are finally coming back strong, which is a change for this economy. When a recession recovery takes place, many businesses experience a sudden surge in activity, something that was largely lacking this time. Since business was growing slowly, if at all, many companies held off on hiring, giving rise to the "jobless recovery" phase commonly seen in the media.

And as James J. Siegel, SNIPS' associate editor, wrote about in this month's feature on the business outlook for 2005, officials with many HVAC organizations are bullish on the upcoming year.

"We had a strong year, and I see the same for 2005," said Donald Frendberg, executive vice president of the wholesalers group HARDI. He credits low interest rates, which have helped new-home sales and construction, for keeping members busy.

"Residential construction, I believe, will continue to be strong," Frendberg added.

However, as Siegel also noted, there are some potential problems for sheet metal contractors in the coming year. Steel prices may not be rising as fast as they were eight months ago, but they're not dropping, either.

"Steel prices are still high, but the extreme rise in prices we experienced in the spring has subsided," said Kevin Harping, 2005 president of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors' National Association. "We believe that steel prices will remain at the levels they are at now through 2005."

Paul Stalknect, president and CEO of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, agreed, but said savvy contractors can deal with the problem.

"It all comes down to contractors building ‘service companies' that can easily pass along the cost of the commodities they must purchase because the value they add is worth it," he said. "Contractors who try to absorb higher prices out of fear of low-balling competitors will be at a severe disadvantage."