The National Automobile Dealers Association convention has not been without some element of controversy in recent years.

Two years ago, General Motors was busy placating its dealers for an ill-advised attempt to involve itself in retail operations.

Last year, GM again was in the center of controversy as it tried to develop a system for ending the Oldsmobile brand that would be fair for the dealers. That question will probably be around for this year's convention also, but a year has passed since the decision to kill the franchise, so much of the shock has worn off.

Other hot button issues last year included questions about Chrysler's new German management team, and Ford dealers' concern about the Blue Oval certification program and the disturbing decline in quality.

This year, however, the dealer/OEM relationships seem to be on much better footing than in years past. The OEMs, instead of having to repair dealer relationships this year, can focus on strengthening them.

H. Carter Myers III, NADA's incoming chairman, says the time is right for dealers and OEMs to become true partners.

He explains, “With the OEM retail strategies ending and with what seems to be the right leadership at the OEM level, we have a real opportunity to improve the relationship this year.

“We're at a time where we can work to strengthen our partnership with the OEM. When you think about it, four or five years ago, it was almost scary to hear people talk about having a partnership with the OEM. A lot of that has changed now.”

Things indeed have changed from last year. The dealer nemesis from GM, Ron Zarrella, is gone. In his place is noted product guru, Bob Lutz, a person whom many dealers are thrilled to see at GM's helm.

Ford dealers, meanwhile, are hailing the “Back to Basics” philosophy being implemented by Ford's new COO, Nick Scheele and its chairman, William Clay Ford Jr. Ford dealers also are finding Scheele easier to work with than was former CEO Jac Nasser.

So, with many of the controversies missing from this year's convention, the topic of conversation will most likely focus on the uncertainty of the coming year. With the probable economic recession and predictions of automotive sales ranging anywhere from 14 million to 16.5 million, dealers will likely commiserate on how they can best position themselves to handle the downturn.

The six study tracks are the same as last year but the topics have been updated and reflect changes in the industry, according to NADA officials. Dealers will have 50 workshop sessions to choose from.

The Super Workshop for this year's convention will be conducted by Frank Maguire. He is an expert on communications, corporate culture and managing the people part of the business.

Maguire is an ardent storyteller and will share experiences from his days as a senior level executive with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Federal Express, American Airlines, ABC News and as an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson.

His message is that a “motivated and dedicated workforce is the surest way to increased earnings.”

Maguire shares two corporate goals Federal Express had while he was there. First was 100% customer satisfaction at the end of each day. Second, employees were to strive for 100% service performance.

“Will you ever get there?” he asks. “Of course not. Nothing is ever perfect. But you shoot for that. You hang that target up there,” he says.

The keynote speakers this year include Jim Press, executive vice president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales USA and John Major, a former British prime minister.

As evidence of the growing importance with which companies are viewing the automotive retail industry, the 2002 convention will have 550 exhibitors — shattering last year's record of 440.

Despite all of the workshops and exhibits to visit, the convention needn't be all work and no play.

New Orleans, or N'Awlins as the natives call it, has plenty of extracurricular activities. Convention attendees can take a Mississippi riverboat cruise or jaunt through the Cajun swampland. Maybe a little gambling at Harrah's, and some shopping on the Riverwalk. And don't forget about late-night Bourbon Street.

With the Super Bowl and the Mardi gras parade the following weekend, the atmosphere in New Orleans should be festive, crowded and sometimes rowdy. Because the events are so high profile, law enforcement agencies in New Orleans are beefing up security.

Most of the enhanced security measures will occur behind the scenes and probably won't inconvenience convention attendees, says a New Orleans police officer.

“We'll have an adequate number of both uniformed and undercover officers,” he says.