Despite sluggish construction activity, the mood was noticeably upbeat at the largest construction event of the year, the CONEXPO-CON/AGG show, held on March 22-26 in Las Vegas. Nearly 120,000 people showed up for the event, where 2,400 exhibitors displayed equipment, products and services over 2.34 million sq ft.

The turnout was about 17% lower than the previous CONEXPO, in March 2008, which saw more than 144,000 visitors. However, vendors and attendees alike say that pent-up demand for heavy machinery and related products worldwide lifted the atmosphere in Las Vegas.

“The increased global participation by attendees and exhibitors underscores the importance of world markets to our industry,” says Megan Tanel, vice president of events for the show manager, the Milwaukee-based Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

International attendance accounted for a record 24% of visitors. On the supply side, Asian manufacturers—such as China-based Sany, Zoomlion, XCMG and Liugong—wowed conventioneers with large booth displays that showed off new machinery ready to go to work in just about any corner of the globe.

Wall Street investors followed the show closely for signs of economic improvement and were particularly interested in the Chinese exhibitors. “Overall, investors were impressed with the aggressive growth strategies presented by each company,” says Ann Duignan, an equities analyst with New York City-based J.P. Morgan, in a March 24 research note.

Distribution in developed nations is the highest hurdle for Chinese suppliers, Duignan adds, but these manufacturers offer tremendous economies of scale that threaten to topple established players. For example, XCMG builds about 1,400 cranes a month, while U.S.-based Manitowoc builds 3,000 units per year. Another challenge for these companies is building up a viable, global workforce to sell and support their equipment.

CONEXPO provided a venue not just to showcase new equipment but gave used-equipment sellers significant exposure. Online auctioneer IronPlanet, Pleasanton, Calif., reported more than $22.8 million in sales on a single day, breaking its previous one-day sales record, at its March 17-18 auction. Held before CONEXPO, that two-day auction’s sales totaled $26.7 million, with 14,500 bidders participating from 150 countries.

Vancouver, British Columbia-based Ritchie Bros. sold $58 million in used iron during a two-day, unreserved auction it held on March 24-25 at its brick-and-mortar site in Las Vegas. The location set a new company record for gross auction proceeds in Las Vegas, well exceeding the $48 million off-loaded there around the time of the previous CONEXPO.

Nearly 5,000 bidders from 50 countries participated in the Vegas auction, which offered more than 2,500 lots. International buyers grabbed up $19 million, or 32%, of the available machinery. One of the largest single sales, a 2009 Caterpillar D10 crawler tractor consigned in Las Vegas, went to a buyer in Dubai for $1.25 million.

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