As we approach another NAFA Fleet Management Association Institute & Expo (I&E) — my 20th — it seems like a good time to pause and reflect a bit on how the event and the industry have changed over the years.
My first NAFA event was in 1994. The buildup to the week was incredible. Back then, it was a week-long adventure with the Automotive Fleet & Leasing Association (AFLA) conference taking place Wednesday through Saturday morning and NAFA I&E taking over Saturday afternoon, going through to the following Wednesday. You needed to pack a lot of clothes and some good walking shoes to get through the week. And, it goes without saying, you needed your golf clubs.
It was a long week, but it was the event in the fleet industry. There were literally thousands of fleet managers in attendance. Not press-release thousands, but really thousands. The aisles were packed for several days in a row. It didn’t matter if you were managing a public sector fleet, a commercial fleet, a truck fleet, a fleet of police vehicles, or even a Canadian or U.S.-domiciled fleet. These fleet managers were all there because of their shared interest in managing fleets of vehicles as efficiently and effectively as possible. And, of course, because we all enjoyed free golf, free food, and an open bar around every corner.
Fleet managers from the many and varied parts of the industry enjoyed swapping best practices and sharing war stories from the front lines of fleet management. But, even then there were cracks in the armor that should have given everyone pause to rethink the nature of the event in general.
The first group of attendees that lost enthusiasm for the event was the law enforcement membership. They rightly pointed out that 90 percent of the exhibitors and a similar-sized portion of the educational tracts did not apply to the police market. They longed for the days when they had their own, more intimate and more focused event that featured only law-enforcement issues.
Next, the divide between commercial and public sector fleets started to grow. Both groups felt like they were being overlooked in terms of awards, education, and vendor focus. And, both groups had legitimate concerns. Then, the utility guys over in the corner felt like everyone was ignoring them, which was particularly galling since they all had fleets of 5,000-10,000 vehicles.
Trying to be all things to all fleets in this case led the event to become a “jack of all trades and master of none.” You could pick any single group and they would give you chapter and verse about how they felt disenfranchised by the event and by the industry. But, this opened doors and opportunities for a lot of groups who were willing to rise to the challenge and create events that maybe weren’t as grand in scale as a NAFA event, but were more specialized, more focused, and more targeted to the needs of a specific group.
AFLA has picked up the mantle quite admirably for some of the commercial fleet crowd.
Bobit’s Government Fleet Conference has done quite well servicing the needs of the public sector and has now become the largest gathering of public sector fleet managers. And, a host of smaller, more focused events have grown over the years to serve the police market, truck fleet market, or those who are focused and specialized in safety, technology, and alternative fuels. This is truly the golden age of focused fleet education. It’s not all located in one place anymore, but it is better than ever.
Here we are, 20 years later and the fleet market is more vibrant and healthy than it has ever been. Our AF readership studies tell us that there are still thousands of fleet managers attending conferences and events each year. They are out there sharing stories, sharing best practices, and walking the exhibit halls of the events that were designed to meet their specific needs.
So, things have changed a lot over the years. And, so far that has been a good thing for everyone.