CHICAGO — There’s hope the nation’s long economic malaise may be lifting, at least based on the sentiments of Pack Expo 2010 exhibitors, such as Don Reggio of Chicago-based Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.

Reggio said visits to his company’s exhibit on the trade show floor at Chicago’s McCormick Place this week were up from last year and people seemed more serious about buying new equipment.

“There’s an upswing in the business environment,” Reggio said Nov. 3 at his company’s booth on the trade show floor. He’s marketing and interactive manager for Smurfit-Stone, a containerboard and corrugated packaging maker. “Companies are looking for ways to optimize productivity.”

Smurfit-Stone was one of more than 1,900 exhibitors at this year’s Pack Expo, the annual convention run by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, Arlington, Va. The group alternates the show between Chicago and Las Vegas.

Visitor attendance this year was about 45,000, on par or possibly higher than the 2008 show in Chicago, estimated Kate Achelpohl, a PMMI spokeswoman (The smaller Las Vegas show attracted 33,967 in 2009). The 2006 Pack Expo in Chicago set records for visitor attendance, at 45,741, and exhibitors, at 2,302.

“Everything’s I’ve heard has been good,” Achelpohl said Nov. 3. “I’ve not heard anyone complaining about not having business.”

At McCormick Place, the floors and concourses were bustling much of this week, with long lines for taxis and at the Starbucks coffee shop. Exhibitors such as Bret Larreau, a product marketing manager with Key Technology, were pleased with the turnout, saying the Chicago show compared favorably to Las Vegas.

“We’ve had a couple of very good days,” Larreau said. “Traffic seems to be up a lot. We have not taken any orders, but we have moved the process along. There’s very few ‘tire-kickers’ here.”

Pack Expo attendees ready for business

Bruce Blythe

Lynne Greenfeather, with Automated Packaging Systems, alongside the FAS Sprint Revolution SidePouch bagger Nov. 3. The machine, introduced in 2009, can be used to bag carrots, celery, lettuce and other produce.

Pack Expo attendees ready for business

Bruce Blythe

Don Reggio, marketing and interactive manager for Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., in front of one of his companies box-making machines on the Pack Expo trade show floor Nov. 3. Smurfit-Stone makes eight-cornered boxes, which are stronger and can be stacked higher than typical boxes, for Calavo Growers and other avocado companies.

Walla Walla, Wash.-based Key Technology sells machines that use lasers and other optical technology to sift debris from potatoes, nuts, lettuce and other foods. Key Technology was one of at least two dozen Pack Expo exhibitors touting new or recently launched baggers, box makers, containers and other products that can be used for fresh produce.

Lynne Greenfeather, spokeswoman for another exhibitor, Automated Packaging Systems, Inc., Streetsboro, Ohio, said that while Pack Expo is a great show, sales leads generated for her company have tapered off in recent years. That’s partly because increasingly cost-conscious businesses are doing more research online and sending fewer people to trade shows, she said.

“I think that’s true for all trade shows,” Greenfeather said Nov. 3.

Broadly, the packaging business has bounced back this year after slipping in 2009, according to PMMI research. U.S. packaging machinery shipments fell 12% last year, to $5.17 billion, the lowest since at least 2005, the association said.

But a recent PMMI survey indicated that almost 40% of manufacturers expected to increase spending on packaging equipment in the third quarter, compared with the same period a year earlier. For the fourth quarter, “sustained recovery” is expected to continue, PMMI chairman Glenn Siegele said in a trade show publication.

“It might slow, but economic growth will continue.”