Covid-19: How one month changed everything for global demolition
18 June 2020
The changes brought about by the global effects of Covid-19 happened almost too quickly for the demolition industry to take them in. This article explores how March 2020 unfolded.
Very few – if any – Americans are unaware of “March Madness”.
It is the term used to describe the frenzy of action that concludes the college basketball season, attracting more than 60 teams in the process.
During the 2019 National Demolition Association (NDA) Convention and Expo in Colorado, anyone spending their downtime in the sports bar of the Gaylord Rockies hotel, with its 22 m (75 ft) television screen, would have been hard pressed to avoid the action however hard they tried.
Fast forward almost a year to the NDA’s latest event, Demolition Austin, which started on February 22.
Demolition Austin - the last event before Covid-19 went global
History, or at least history viewed solely from a demolition perspective, will record Demolition Austin as the industry’s last event before Coronavirus became a global issue.
By the end of March, the world was facing a very different kind of madness. A BBC news report using data from Johns Hopkins University said that on April 2, only 18 countries worldwide were free of the virus, and they included seven of the 10 least-visited places on the planet.
When NDA president Chris Godek cut the ribbon to perform the convention’s official opening, Covid-19’s major disruptive effects appeared to be to Chinese New Year celebrations.
Few of those present at the Sunday Live Demo event, those viewing the indoor exhibits during the next two days, even those competing fiercely in the expo’s typically Texan Corn Hole Challenge, appeared to show any obvious awareness of it.
The NDA concluded its annual gathering on February 25, with its traditional last night banquet.
Three days later, the Deutscher Abbruchverband (German Demolition Association) started its yearly event in Berlin.
But a characteristically comprehensive conference programme was missing an Italian speaker, who had been unable to travel due to the virus having spread to Italy, and the running order was rearranged as a result.
Big name withdrawals - but ConExpo goes ahead
That weekend, preparations were already underway for ConExpo, which was due to open on Tuesday March 10.
The event had some significant momentum behind it. In mid-January it reported the largest number of advance registrations ever for a single week, and publicity suggested it was heading for a series of new records – 241,500 sq m (2.6 million sq ft) of space; a connected campus of the Las Vegas Convention Center and nearby Festival Grounds.
The event’s organiser, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) said: “A sizeable international attendance is expected from an estimated 130 countries.”
In exhibition terms, it was a classic case of “build it, and they will come.”
Then, just days before the show, Volvo Construction Equipment pulled out of the event.
The announcement was arguably a shock even to the company itself – it was so close to the start of the event that the Volvo exhibits already in place could not be moved. Instead they stayed in situ for the duration. With no Volvo employees allowed to travel, the booth was manned by “locally hired independent staff”.
Further withdrawals followed – Stanley Infrastructure, which includes the LaBounty demolition equipment brand, announced its non-attendance, as did Germany-based compact equipment supplier Wacker Neuson – but with 24 hours to go, the AEM was still bullish.
Of the cancellations, only five had been from companies with floorspace of greater than 185 sq m (2,000 sq ft). Only 2.5% of the total sold space had been affected, while it had even been possible to resell some of the newly vacated slots.
All eyes on Las Vegas Convention Center
On the morning of March 10, ConExpo began on schedule. In the early hours leading up to the start, the local television news channel positioned a reporter at the site, who went on to confirm the 120,000 expected visitors and the small number of cancellations.
Despite some distinctly un-Las Vegas like weather, causing unexpected pre-show mopping up operations on some of the many outdoor stands, ConExpo was off and running. It looked, as far as possible, business as usual.
And, as far as possible, it was. Not all the planned press conferences and product launches went ahead, but enough of them did. The previously unasked question of “How is the Coronavirus affecting your global supply chain?” became a fixture, particularly to companies with manufacturing operations in China,.
Then, as the week went on, Coronavirus cases were reported in Clark County, the area of Las Vegas that included the host venue of ConExpo. President Trump banned travel to and from Europe (apart from the United Kingdom and Ireland).
In the event, ConExpo finished a day earlier than scheduled. Within a week, the US government was considering a $2 trillion economic stimulus package for its depleted construction industry.
Europe considers its options as the Covid-19 pandemic worsens
Back in Europe, the picture was even worse, with Italy, France and Spain all suffering desperately.
By March 23, in the week when Italy’s Samoter exhibition should have been taking place, the Finnish Demolition Association reported on its website that the European Demolition Association set for Belgrade, Serbia in June had also been postponed.
Official confirmation followed in April; other construction, demolition and recycling shows set for the coming months such as Hillhead in the United Kingdom and the German events IFAT and Steinexpo would suffer the same fate.
At contractor level, site closures followed rapidly. In Britain, Cawarden was forced to close down the latest stage of a major project in the English midlands on behalf of retailer Debenhams; the Carey Group, parent organisation of Scudder Demolition, locked up its sites, like many of its contemporaries, in the interests of employee safety..
Covid-19 factor kicks in as financial results announced
As 2020 entered its second quarter, the financial impact of Covid-19 on manufacturers was already obvious.
Metso, less than a year on from some high-profile acquisitions as it pursued an international growth strategy, found itself obliged to withdraw the financial outlook for 2020 that it had issued as recently as February. Wacker Neuson did likewise.
Volvo Construction Equipment reported a 17% drop in global sales with all sectors apart from South America affected.
As 2020 entered its second quarter, In the US, the government pushed through its Coronavirus relief measures as the country’s Associated General Contractors body reported a collapse in demand since February.
Having battled for essential industry status and lobbied for government help for its 500-strong membership, an NDA survey found almost three-quarters of respondents suffered a work stoppage due to Coronavirus, with social distancing and remote working for office staff mandatory elsewhere.
Trade association lobbbying and Coronavirus relief measures
It is tempting – some might even say essential – to look for plus points and consolations among the chaos. Perhaps the major silver lining for demolition and recycling companies is that wherever they are in the world they are not alone.
During the month of March, the European Demolition Association joined with more than a dozen similar organisations representing other parts of the continent’s construction industry across to start a debate aimed at achieving a meaningful intervention from the European Union and member states.
In Britain, the National Federation of Demolition Contractors put a range of resources online for its members and made a particular point of encouraging those members and their families to look after their mental health during the weeks and months that lay ahead.
And in North America, the NDA contacted President Trump directly to make sure that the hardship being suffered by its membership during the sudden shutdown was noticed in the corridors of power.
Demolition New Orleans - how will the industry look in 2021?
The 2021 NDA Convention and Expo is set for New Orleans from March 4 to 7.
Later that same month, March Madness – which never happened this year as it became another in the long list of events that just could not go ahead – is scheduled to take place, its interest and excitement levels heightened by its 2020 sabbatical.
If it does, it will be a sign of a sense of normality.
It could be the “normal” we took for granted in late 2019 and the early weeks of this year.
It might be a new and different norm as the demoltion industry – and society in general – emerges from its trauma.
Time, as they say, will tell.
- Article first published in the April-May issue of Demolition & Recycling International