NEW ORLEANS – Centering on its 100th anniversary this year, the National Automobile Dealers Assn.’s annual convention and expo kicks into full gear today.

The event is the world’s largest international gathering of franchised car dealers and auto industry professionals.

It is in New Orleans for the 12th time since 1973 and is expected to attract more than 23,000 attendees. That includes car dealers from 36 countries.

Led by a Dixieland band, NADA officers walk the expo floor today. They include 2017 Chairman Mark Scarpelli, 2016 Chairman Jeff Carlson, 2018 Chairman Wes Lutz and NADA President Peter Welch.

On the sprawling expo floor nearly 600 companies exhibit their wares, from “thank-you” cookies for car buyers to operating car washes to the latest software systems for dealerships.

Keynote speakers will include Ford CEO Mark Fields; Roger Penske of motorsport and dealership group fame; and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

Meanwhile, dealers and their managers will attend franchise meetings with their respective auto brands. Those closed-door sessions, which can be blunt depending on circumstances, give dealers and auto executives a chance to discuss mutual issues and concerns.  

“It's not every day that a national trade association reaches its 100-year anniversary, yet NADA is still as strong and relevant as the day it was founded,” Carlson says.

Founded in 1917, NADA formed when a group of local dealers set out to fight a new effort by Congress to levy a luxury tax on new automobiles. Thirty dealers from state and local associations traveled to Washington, D.C., and set up base at the Willard Hotel.

“Local dealers argued in 1917 that cars are a necessity of American life, not a luxury item,” Scarpelli says.

His priorities for 2017 include advocating on legislative and regulatory issues in Washington, promoting the consumer benefits of local dealerships, meeting with auto executives and getting the next generation of dealers involved in their trade associations and on Capitol Hill.

“We're advocating for clarity with the new administration and Congress, whether it’s related to auto financing, new tax proposals, vehicle-recall policy or fuel-economy rules,” he says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com