By CYRIL TUOHY, JARED SHELLY and NANCY GROVER
What a difference two decades make -- or do they? Think back to the first annual National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo, held in Chicago in 1991.
That first show was held at the beautiful and gilded Palmer House Hilton on East Monroe Street in Chicago's downtown Loop district. The convention space, however, was little more than a "basement," in the words of one attendee.
At the beginning the workers' comp show was "more of a curiosity" than a necessity, said Lester L. Sacks, managing partner of Decision UR, a utilization review software company.
Some people even wondered if the fledgling conference wasn't a "one-off," and whether it would ever live to see its second year, let alone celebrate its 20th birthday, said Matthew Schiff, a partner with the employment and workers' compensation law firm of Schiff & Hulbert.
With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and then the Family Medical Leave Act, interest in the conference grew as companies sent managers to the show to learning about the latest laws. This year, the show was held November 8 to 11 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Pretty soon, Schiff found himself conducting all-day sessions around the ADA, FMLA and workers' compensation as more and more companies sent managers to learn about the changes to the new federal laws. "It was a three-headed monster," Schiff said.
Presentations consisted of handouts, not PowerPoints, and computer browsers hadn't yet hit the consuming mainstream so many of the sessions were flat in comparison to today's, said Sacks. And there was no discrete texting during sessions.
"Conversations took place face-to-face, rather than on the technological devices used by nearly everyone at the conference today," said Nancy Grover, program director for the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. "People didn't engage in texting or accessing the Internet from their phones."
Attendees and exhibitors with laptop computers were a rarified bunch indeed. The early 1990s was a time when cell phones were appearing in automobiles, not in jacket pockets; a time when the term "smartphone" had not yet been invented.
"The term 'smartphone,' was not part of the business lexicon," Grover said. "A tablet was something you took for a headache, not a device allowing you to work offsite."
Today, no one conducts business without a wireless phone, and the smartphone has just about eclipsed clamshell cellphones as the favorite tools of the trade. The computing staple that the laptop has become over the past 20 years is rapidly ceding ground to the iPad and tablet computing formats.
After several years at the Palmer House, the conference had to move to accommodate the growing number of participants and exhibitors, and organizers moved the show to the Hyatt Hotel, Schiff said.
"It was bigger and very central right on Wacker Drive," Schiff said. "You had the advantage from going vertically from the room to the expo. It was very user friendly and very close for evening stuff."
It wasn't until the show moved to McCormick Place that it really started to grow, said Schiff, as McCormick had the space to host hundreds of attendees. McCormick could easily accommodate 20-by-20 booths, previously limited by a hotel's nine-foot ceilings, said Fred Kurst, the exhibit sales manager for LRP Publications, owner of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo.
Attendees and conference staff continued to stay at the Hilton and Hyatt hotels, and took shuttles to the conference 20 minutes away. McCormick's unions sometimes made it logistically difficult for conference organizations.
"There are some very funny stories about fights with the unions," Schiff said. "Every place had great stories and great adventures, but after coming out here, it's continued prosper despite a difficult economy."
On the heels of Sept. 11, after which compensation rates shot up, there was an air of uncertainty at the 2001 event, not only about the physical safety of the nation, but also about the future of the workers' compensation system, Grover said.No one was quite sure what the system would, or should look like going forward.
For the first time, terms such as "terrorism risk" and "catastrophe modeling" sprang up in hallway conversations, Grover said. " 'Could the industry survive the next terrorism attack?' was an oft-heard question," she said.
In 2006, the 15th anniversary of the show, the conference was held at Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. Drawing a large contingent from the West Coast and from California, a state that had just passed workers' compensation reforms, Sin City was an immediate hit with attendees and exhibitors.
"Vegas draws more people than Chicago," said John D'Alusio, executive vice president of vendor Medval. "The locale brings more attendees because of the geographic proximity to the West Coast and Texas, which is 30 percent of the workers' compensation market." He also said the conference is more vibrant than it was five years ago when he attended for the first time.
Anthony J. Viggiano, vice president of operations at Work Strategies, said the exhibit hall itself has changed plenty since those early days in Chicago.
The various hotel conference halls "was nothing like this." The smaller venues made the show only seem bigger. "But the shift to Vegas made sense," he said.
The conference has alternated between Chicago and Las Vegas since 2006. It is scheduled to be held at the Las Vegas Convention Center again next year, but whether attendees will be staying at the Las Vegas Hilton is another story.
As of Jan. 1, 2012, Hilton will end its franchise agreement with Colony Resorts LVH Acquisitions LLC, owner and operator of the Las Vegas Hilton, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this year.
November 11, 2011
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