Industry veterans who attended ILCT’s first show (then called the Limousine & Chauffeur Show) a quarter century ago remember a wild and crazy time.
By today’s standards, the show was plain and simple — a handful of coachbuilders, a few speakers, and a small exhibit hall — but it brought together limousine operators from across the nation. That was more than enough to unite a young industry.
“It was a very visual event, with shiny cars and people meeting over drinks and hors d’oeuvres,” says Ty Bobit, the creator of the show. Today he works as president and CEO of Bobit Business Media of Torrance, Calif., the parent company of LCT Magazine.
The unique cars and energetic attendees attracted the press, Bobit says. “Television news shows arrived — CNN was there, and Good Morning America. The attention we got from the media and limo operators was fantastic, over the top. I was MCing most of the event, and I remember being dragged around all over the place to introduce speakers and talk to reporters. It was crazy and wild. There was so much energy and so much going on.”
The anticipation of the show was “bigger than the Beatles,” says Richard Ramis, owner of AYS Dispatch in Chicago. “It was unheard of and wild. It was my first trip to Atlantic City. We were a fresh, young, virgin industry. We’d never had a forum. And there we were, in our satin jackets, me from Chicago meeting Joey from New York City — it was almost surreal.” At the time of the first show, Ramis was general manager of Southwest Limousine in Mokena, Ill., a man passionate about limousines.
Bobit developed the idea for the ILCT show after attending an invitation-only display of Lincoln limousines in 1983. “I saw how operators flocked to see three Lincoln limos,” he says. “This gave me the idea to start a national event, even though the company didn’t want me to start the show because our focus was magazine publishing.”
Bobit chose to hold the November 1984 show at Atlantic City Caesars to make it easier for East Coast operators to attend. “We didn’t know what to expect, maybe 500 people, but 1,105 showed up,” Bobit says. “It was pretty cool.”
Bobit’s observation that limousine operators wanted a national event was accurate, and the operators themselves took it one step further: Just after that first show, they created the National Limousine Association.
“The NLA was essentially born at the first show,” Ramis says. “It was spontaneous combustion.” As a speaker at the first show, Ramis urged fellow operators to take advantage of their numbers and unite to create an industry voice.
After his speech, three people approached Ramis to ask if he was serious about creating an association. “When I made the speech, I didn’t realize other people were thinking the same thing,” Ramis says. “One month later, I was in Washington to meet with those interested in forming the association, and 90 days later, we had an association.
The show and its attendance grew during the next few years. “During the second year, we thought the West Coast operators wouldn’t want to travel east, so we started the west show,” Bobit says. Attendance at both shows combined totaled 2,800 people.
Ramis says that coachbuilders and educators became more savvy in their show presence. “The first year, the limos were short, and cookie-cutter, just stock off the shelf. By about the seventh year, coachbuilders were making fl ashy show cars,” he says. In addition, the seminars became more complex and intense.
Bruce Cirlin, vice president of sales at Universal Limousine Distributors in Wayne, N.J., has an impressive claim to fame — he has attended and exhibited at every single International LCT Show and was one of the speakers at the first show. This experience has given him rare perspective on the growth of the show and the industry. “At the beginning, there was a limited number of coachbuilders, only a few dealers, and basic technology — no computers or cell phones, and not as big a selection of vehicles,” Cirlin says.
“I remember Atlantic City, Baltimore, and the ‘infamous’ show in New Orleans,” Cirlin continues. “It was in 1991, and the old convention center was about to be torn down — it was in terrible shape — and all the hospitality parties were on Bourbon Street and on a riverboat. We made our own Mardi Gras. At that time, the economy was so-so.”
Things began to change for the show in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some coachbuilders, concerned that traveling to two venues per year was becoming expensive, asked Ty Bobit to scale back the shows into one yearly show. “I warned them that if we consolidated to one show, somebody else would start a second event,” Bobit says. “That did happen. But the coachbuilders said they would stick by us.”
As anticipated, the second show did start up, and from Bobit’s perspective, things didn’t quite work out as planned. The NLA was the founder of the second show, and coachbuilders divided their loyalties between the International LCT and NLA shows. Bobit addressed the issue by asking NLA president George Jacobs for a meeting.
Bobit and Jacobs’ “clandestine” meeting took place in Chicago in 1989. The highly visible result was a working partnership between ILCT and the NLA. Combining forces was good for both entities. “We’ve been partners ever since, and we created one successful show together,” Bobit says.
Times change, and so has the International LCT Show. “In the old days, there were fewer operators, so the show was more personal and we knew everybody,” Cirlin says. “In the last few years, there have been about 3,500 attendees and a lot of new people. I think that’s good for the industry — it’s ever-changing, growing, and expanding.”
In his 25 years with the show, Cirlin has seen the industry grow through good times and bad. “Even when times are bad, the show always lifted me up,” he says. “There are so many people that I don’t see usually that I get to see at the show. They’re like family, and I look forward to each year.”
He will be attending this year, even in the midst of the recession. “It has been a tough year, but I’ve been through tough times before,” he says. “A lot of people are wondering if they can afford to go to the show, and I understand that. But if you can go, it’s a good thing to do. You sit with hundreds of others in the same position as you, and you generate ideas of how to survive.”