Stephen Deter, president and CEO of Michigan’s Midwest Tool and Cutlery Co., shows off its Midwest Snips brand products at the ACCA’s Indoor Air Expo.

LAS VEGAS - A lot has changed in the HVAC industry and Las Vegas itself since the Air Conditioning Contractors of America last brought its annual convention here 11 years ago.

Historic old resorts such as the Sahara and Frontier have closed, and a city that was once among the hottest construction and real estate markets in the nation now grapples with home foreclosures and half-finished casino projects.

The HVAC industry itself has been battling back from hard times in recent years, which was perhaps why the ACCA urged its members to “raise the stakes” by attending the March 5-8 conference at the Paris casino-hotel.

Although the association does not release attendance figures, the Indoor Air Expo trade show and many educational seminars - the ACCA calls them “learning labs” - appeared to be well attended.

Jim King of Power Engineering in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., liked what he saw.

“Just about everything was great about the conference,” said King. “The conference provides a broad spectrum of topics pertinent to the day-to-day operations of my business and gives me ideas about how to improve my business. To be sure, there is something for everyone.”

Federated Insurance spokesman Dave Cameron told Air Conditioning Contractors of America members March 5 that they need a distracted-driving policy that bans talking on cellphones behind the wheel.

‘Learning labs' popular

Eric Knaak of Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y., said the seminars were valuable.

“The conference was well rounded with many sessions devoted to the areas that impact contractors and business owners the most,” Knaak said. “As I have always shared with the folks that I meet, my greatest experience is meeting other HVAC professionals and sharing ideas with them.”

And officials with trade show exhibitor Midwest Tool & Cutlery said they were glad they had an expo booth this year.

“I was pleased with the quality and quantity of contractors visiting my exhibit booth,” said Stephen Deter of Midwest Tool & Cutlery Co. in Sturgis, Mich. “The exhibit hall was well laid out and the contractor box lunches and exhibit room luncheon areas were a good idea and were well positioned to attract contractors into the exhibit area and afford them some comfortable seating, enticing them to remain in the area to lunch and network.”

Serious distractions

Among the well-attended learning labs was “Distracted Driving: In the Blink of an Eye,” presented by Dave Cameron of Federated Insurance.

Federated has been studying this issue for more than eight years, long before it was commanding the public’s attention, Cameron said. Along with tailgating and backing into other cars, distracted driving is among the top issues the company deals with.

Federated considers distracted driving anything that takes drivers’ eyes off the road: global positioning systems, MP3 players, compact discs, eating. Cellphone use is the No. 1 distraction.

Many employers may be part of the problem, Cameron said. Too many send employees work-related text messages while they are behind the wheel.

He recommended instituting a cellphone use policy. It creates an affirmative defense in the case of an accident. Cameron suggested that the policy be strict.

“Put in a ‘no cellphone use while driving’ policy,” he said. “It can be done.”

Exxon-Mobil and United Parcel Service are among the large companies with such rules, he added.

Advice: ban it

Although no state has yet instituted such a policy, a number have tightened cellphone use rules, including bans on cell use for novice drivers and texting bans for all drivers. The federal government is still mulling a national law. It has already banned texting and handheld cell use for commercial truck drivers.

“Two-thirds of all distractions that cause our minds to leave the driving (task) are inside the vehicle,” Cameron said.

Many drivers - not just teenagers - are overconfident.

“Typically, we feel we can multitask,” he said.

And don’t think that just because you have a company distracted-driving policy that you are protected. Companies may still be liable for workers’ off-duty accidents if they are at fault.

Estimates say that distracted driving is responsible for up to 8,000 crashes each day, and texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash than non-texting drivers - a rate similar to those who are legally intoxicated, Cameron said.

Only 2 percent of drivers are able to talk on a cellphone - using a headset or not - and not show any impairment.

“The price we pay for driving while distracted is simply too great,” he said. “What’s more dangerous than being distracted while driving? Believing you can’t.”

Brian Kraff, CEO of Market Hardware Inc. in Bethesda, Md., says HVAC contractors can no longer wait to jump into social media marketing. 

The ‘second Internet' arrives

If you still think Facebook is just something for time-wasting teenagers and has no place in your HVAC company’s marketing plan, Brian Kraff says you’re wrong.

But if you thought Kraff had just said a couple years ago that it wasn’t necessary for most HVAC businesses to establish a social media presence, you’re probably right.

“One of the most annoying things about Internet marketing is that it changes all the time,” Kraff said. “You have to pay attention to what is happening in social media.”

And that’s why Kraff, the chief executive officer of Market Hardware Inc. in Bethesda, Md., has become a mainstay at the ACCA’s annual conventions. The advice he gives reflects the latest research in how the general public uses the Internet, not just young people or technology geeks.

Less than a decade ago, his advice was to ensure you had a good-looking website. A few years later, he told ACCA members that even though blogs were all the rage, they probably didn’t need to worry about them just yet.

More recently, he recommended ensuring your company’s website was compatible with Internet-capable cellphones and gave tips on boosting where you showed up in search engine results.

Rachel Pozworski (left) and Richard Bluestone of Alan Manufacturing Inc. staff the company’s booth at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s Indoor Air Expo March 5.

Too big to ignore

But Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media juggernaut is too big today to ignore, Kraff said during his March 6 session, “Social Media: Have You Had Your ‘A-Ha’ Moment Yet?”

“In 2012, your customers expect you to have a social media presence,” he said. “Social media engages your customers in conversation and interaction rather than just broadcasting to them.”

He said Facebook is so popular, more people log on to it each day than use Google.

Kraff calls the social media website “the second Internet.”

“If you are not part of this second Internet, you are ceding territory,” he said. “Social media has reached critical mass. If you don’t believe me, I have some statistics for you.”

Among them:

• Half of the U.S. population has a Facebook account.

• 77 percent of Internet users read blogs.

• People on Twitter “tweet” 55 times a day.

• An estimated 250 million people access Facebook using their cellphones or smartphones.

Robert Hamilton (left) and Tim Fultz work the Duro Dyne Corp. booth March 6 at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s Indoor Air Expo in Las Vegas.

Word-of-mouth goes online