THE 2001 NISSAN NATIONAL DEALER MEETING IN Las Vegas was intended as an upbeat event, a pep rally of sorts by a car company that''s coming off some bad years.

More than 2,000 dealers, family members and others flew in, ready to get down to business and to hear of Nissan''s comeback plans, leveraged by the redesigned 2002 Altima.

Then came the horrible news of the day: terrorists had drilled airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The dealer event turned somber. “Canceled,” “Canceled,” “Canceled” was marked across the bulletin board of the day''s meetings and activities. Dealers instead lingered at lobby TVs showing an American tragedy.

That evening''s business meeting, scheduled for 90 minutes, lasted 10. No one talked business. A stricken Jed Connelly, Nissan North America Inc.''s senior vice president of sales and marketing, offered a moment of silence. Then he told dealers the time and place for auto talk was another time and place.

“It wasn''t the appropriate environment for business as usual because it wasn''t business as usual,” said Mr. Connelly. “We were all just about speechless.”

“There were a lot of upbeat things the dealers were supposed to see and hear about,” said W. J. Kirrane, vice president and general manager of Nissan North America''s Nissan division. “But this doesn''t make it.”

The evening''s entertainment, country-western singer Vince Gill, was a scratch. Dealers, if they felt like it, were invited to visit a ballroom showing new vehicles and a mock-up of a new Nissan dealership prototype.

Several dealers showed up. The day''s emotional baggage went with them.

“I was sitting on my bed this morning watching TV, and I cried,” said Keith Cox of Cox Nissan, Bronx, NY. “I told my wife we''ll have to re-write the history books.”

Dealers said they would have been stunned more than they already were had Nissan carried on with the show.

“I''d have been disappointed if they stayed with the original agenda,” said Bob Wright of Wright Automotive Group in Wexford, PA, located 55 minutes by car from the crash site of the only hijacked plane that didn''t reach its intended target.

Said Mr. Wright. “I''ll meet with my dealer rep later to go over things that would have been discussed here. There''s another time for that.”

Nissan showed needed sensitivity, said Alexander Busschots, Nissan manager for Ann Arbor (MI) Automotive, a multi-franchise dealership.

“Nissan showed class in the way they handled this,” he said. “I can look at a marketing plan at any time. I didn''t need to look at it now.”

The evening''s planned dressy affair at a ballroom car salon had been billed as “the moment you''ve been waiting for.” Instead, attire was switched to business casual, and attendance was only if you felt like it.

Said Mr. Busschots, “Jed Connelly told us that if you want to go, go. If you don''t want to — if you''d rather be with your families or whatever — there was no need to attend. He seemed really disturbed.”

Mr. Busschots, a Belgium native, said many people overseas have seen war''s devastation up close. “But it''s not something you expect to see in America.”

Meanwhile there was the matter of getting home after flights were grounded. Some dealers rented cars. Others headed for the local Manheim car auction, purchased a vehicle and hit the road.

Nissan''s dealer meeting was at the Mandalay Bay hotel. Nearby is the New York, New York hotel. Its sprawling facade resembles the New York City skyline. One of those mock buildings is a small-scale version of the World Trade Center. It was eerie looking at that, knowing the real thing was gone.

Las Vegas visitors left flowers and notes outside New York, New York. One such message from Canadian newlyweds, said, “A rose from our wedding. We were united in marriage Sept. 10, 2001. We lost our innocence Sept. 11, 2001. God bless America.”


Steve Finlay is editor of Ward''s Dealer Business. His e-mail address is: sfinlay@intertec.com