By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Lynn Wineland, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
Growth Potential Unlimited
Well, that didn’t take long.
Organizers of the first High Performance and Custom Trade Show, which was held 50 years ago at Dodger Stadium, recognized early on that the Show needed to move out of the ballpark’s halls and into a proper convention facility for it to have any growth potential. The second show—already being referred to as the SEMA Show—did just that, relocating in 1968 to the Anaheim Convention Center.
The move allowed 140 exhibitors in 201 10x10-ft. booths “to display their products and make their 1968 sales pitches to 3,800 distributors and dealers from all over this country, Mexico and Canada,” wrote Ray Brock, covering the Show in the February 1968 issue of Petersen Publishing Company’s Hot Rod Industry News (HRIN). Brock noted that the 1968 Show used just half of the convention hall’s available 100,000 sq. ft.
“Next year we anticipate using at least three-fourths of the hall, or 75,000 sq. ft. and, who knows, maybe by 1970 we will have the whole hall filled with specialty-equipment manufacturer exhibits,” he wrote.
Within eight years, the SEMA Show did that and more. The 1975 and 1976 shows were sellouts—a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
“Booth space was at a premium, exhibits had to be restricted in size, products could not be displayed properly, and in many cases, companies who wanted to be in the Show were left out because there was no more room available,” noted the April 1977 issue of HRIN.
That was the issue in which Petersen’s trade magazine announced the next fundamental shift in the SEMA Show’s history: The 1977 edition of the Show would be held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where growth potential was “unlimited,” said the story’s headline.
“This spacious, modern facility, one of the largest in the world, has complete services available for exhibitors and provides free parking for all attendees,” said HRIN. The Center was “ideally located” just three miles from the Las Vegas Airport; and the headquarters hotel, the Las Vegas Hilton, was “a mere 278 ft. away.” With “2,139 deluxe rooms and suites, showrooms, lounges, restaurants, casino, the works,” the Hilton was the “perfect spot for ‘after the Show’ activities.”
For 40 years, the SEMA Show has continued to call the Las Vegas Convention Center home. There have been a lot of changes during those decades. The Show has continued to grow, and the venue, too, has expanded and built out its exhibition facilities.
Moving the AAPEX portion of the Show to the Sands Convention Center gave the SEMA Show some breathing room—for a time. But today’s SEMA Show seems ready to burst the Las Vegas Convention Center at the seams, with exhibits spilling out into temporary buildings in nearby parking lots and even into function rooms at the hotel next door, which itself has undergone significant changes. Now the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, it’s still that “perfect spot” for post-Show gatherings.
Forty years ago, Las Vegas and SEMA were ready to prepare Show attendees for “A Great ’78.” It’s a combination that’s still “great” for business and is poised to stay that way for years to come.