Is business really improving? Is the economy picking up like the numbers suggest? The answer probably depends on where you live and what you do for a living. But there is no doubt that there is more business activity now than there was a year ago. More and more companies are opening up and adding equipment and capacity to their operations.

Electrocoat 2004 is a good example of the current business activity. The conference was held April 14 to 16 in Orlando, FL, at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort and Convention Center. As the dates for the conference approached, the registration was still below expectations and there was concern for the success of the event. But registrations picked up significantly, and it turned out to be an exceptionally well attended event, with 386 total conference attendees from the United States and 11 other countries (conference registrants, staff, press, speakers and steering committee members) and another 80 people who represented their companies in hospitality suites.

The unique format for the conference focused the entire day on individual technical presentations and workshops with panels of experts to answer questions from the audience. The topics were timely and informative, with special attention paid to new technologies and better ways of doing business. They covered cost issues, new technologies for pretreatment, material handling options, system control measures for cost savings and a broad range of other topics that were useful for beginners and experienced E-coaters.

When the day's programming ended, the hospitality suites opened. The hospitality-suite exhibits provided a unique opportunity for attendees to meet with vendors and get a great idea of what they had to offer. Exhibits included video, equipment, graphic displays on computers and one completely operational electrocoat system. The hospitality suites provided a great atmosphere where attendees could have informal conversations with vendors and other participants or get detailed information about new technologies. It was also a great way to unwind after the intense day of programming and meet with industry peers.

As for the business aspects of the event, in discussions with many of the companies who displayed in the hospitality suites, every one of them was excited about the event and the number of interested buyers they were talking with. This included chemical companies, paint companies and equipment companies. If the follow-up results are as good as the conference, it will be a good year.

The impact of one event is hard to measure given the overall sluggish business activity we have experienced for the past several years. But the tone of comments from the suppliers at the conference was universally positive. They liked the format of the conference and they expected to close sales as a result of having attended.

Business is showing some solid signs of improvement. That is not completely unexpected considering the amount of capital that many businesses have had for some time now and the reluctance they have had to spend it for the past couple of years. Demand has to arise at some point and then business has to respond with the ability to deliver.

So yes, business is really improving. The overall economy is still vulnerable in many ways due to continued high unemployment in several states and manufacturing sectors and the impact of high fuel costs. But in general, the economy once again has a pulse.