What We Learned From UCT

At the 2011 edition of the annual Underground Construction Technology International Conference & Exhibition (UCT) held in January, a different mentality and perspective was apparent among both the attendees and many of the exhibitors.

That the construction industry has been suffering through a prolonged recession culminating in the disruption of vital infrastructure projects and plans is a given. There have been bright spots: the cured-in-place market (for the most part) had a good 2010. In fact, the sewer and water rehabilitation market was one of the few stable niches over the past three years. Though far from a strong market, rehab has largely held its own while many other underground infrastructure niches have struggled through the hard times.

The last three years have seen attendees – at all trade show events – display an air of extreme caution as it pertains to market outlooks. They have been reluctant to become involved. Rather, most seemed to be in a holding pattern, just going through the motions to survive budget cuts and chasing remote business leads just to get by for another year.

But at UCT 2011, there was a different attitude among attendees. Several of us commented on that fact while at the show. Some found it subtle; I found it to be more pronounced. Regardless, there was a renewed sense of engagement from the UCT audience, a sense of looking forward to the year ahead that has been absent of late. Contractors, owners and consulting engineers all seemed to be somewhat excited to be moving forward.

No one would admit to expecting a strong resurgence in underground infrastructure activity 2011. Most don’t expect that to happen before 2013. But stability, overall improving economic conditions and, while modest, encouraging activity in a wide range of markets was reflected in many ways at UCT.

Overall attendance was up by a whopping 21 percent. The renowned RehabZone, part of the exhibition, set a new record for attendance. The educational program was the largest in the history of UCT, as even more people filled the rooms, anxious to learn, update their information and get a grasp on the latest and greatest technologies impacting their market niches. More people traveled longer distances to attend the market’s signature event. International attendance increased as well.

People weren’t necessarily ready to buy or commit to projects. However, there was interest as the level of market activities continues to move forward. People were willing to stick their heads cautiously out of their protective shells and take a look around, asses their needs and note potential resources.

Attendees were asking questions, seeking knowledge and becoming involved. In tandem with the dramatic attendance increase came an equal jump in industry activity at UCT. While the event has always been the focus for the business of underground infrastructure, 2011 saw a major expansion by a variety of industry associations’ special interests in terms of meetings and discussion. All this reflects the renewed activity level for industry from a multitude of sectors. Interest in promoting industry agendas has returned and been reinvigorated

Private companies as well held numerous business meetings throughout the UCT Conference, preparing for what they anticipate will be a better year ahead.

Of course, all this optimism is not without caveats and caution. Industry activity is just now recovering and becoming more self-sustaining again without artificial funding i.e. stimulus monies. It will probably take through 2012 before higher levels of sustainable growth can be obtained.

But at UCT, there was definitely the belief that the worst is over and that some level of market stability has been achieved. After what industry has suffered through, we’ll take that and continue to rebuild our market.

As UCT is annually the first and largest underground infrastructure industry event, it has often been said that as UCT goes, so goes the market place for the upcoming year. Let us hope that corollary again holds true.

Regardless, at UCT 2011, it appeared that the business of underground began afresh.

In the February Editor’s Watch discussing the San Bruno, CA, gas explosion and implication of pipebursting as a possible cause, the term “spiral weld” steel pipe was inaccurately used. The proper term was “seam welded” pipe. We regret the error.

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