ATLANTIC CITY — The city is hosting its first convention since Hurricane Sandy swept across South Jersey.

The United States Sign Council opened its annual conference Thursday at the Atlantic City Convention Center. More than 6,400 people are expected for the three-day gathering of signmakers, installers and designers.

Nancy Maren, director of the trade group based in Bristol, Pa., said she has fielded many calls from participants and exhibitors across the United States and Canada to reassure them that this week’s international gathering is still a go.

“People kept asking, ‘Are you going to cancel the convention?’” she said. “They thought the whole city had been washed out to sea.”

Maren said she reassured her members by pointing out that the reason they didn’t see TV news reports about Atlantic City’s casino hotels closing from extensive storm damage was because there was no extensive storm damage, at least in the heart of the city.

This year’s convention is an important one for a sign industry that has contracted since the recession, participants said. With fewer new businesses opening or investing capital in renovations, companies have been in need of fewer signs.

“This show used to be three or four times bigger than this. We used to have six booths at this convention,” said Tom Flack, owner of Creative Visual Systems based in Somerset. “This year we have one.”

Likewise, his company has closed three of its five offices since the recession, he said.

But businesses that trade on indoor rack displays, banners and other temporary promotions have seen an increase in sales, said Rick Hatton, owner of Wellington, Ohio’s Banner Ups.

Since the recession, his banner business has done banner business, he said.

“We’re in the lower-cost promotional market. In a down market, people will use banners and promotional signs to advertise,” he said. “Businesses are grabbing for today’s sale.”

The convention offered the latest technology in computer graphics, digital message boards and automation. But one section of the convention floor was reserved for sign artists who still make their living with a steady hand and a strong imagination.

Retired Ocean County Sheriff’s Officer Bill Calame, of Lacey Township, does custom striping on cars, trucks and motorcycles. He started painting as a way to relax from his stressful job as a member of the Ocean County SWAT team.

“I applied to work on the Scenic Artist Unit at Six Flags Great Adventure,” he said. “They gave me a brush and told me to letter a sign and they hired me.”

The artists at the trade show produce new artwork that is auctioned off for an autism charity at the end of the convention, he said.

“It’s a custom culture. Some people still prefer hand-lettered signs,” he said. “They have a roughness about them — tiny imperfections that make each of them unique.”

This week’s convention marks an important milestone for Atlantic City as well, said Joseph Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber. Large conventions such as this one will go a long way in helping the resort overcome misperceptions about storm damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

“This is a very good piece of business for us,” he said. “The sound bite coming from conventioneers is that Atlantic City is open and ready for their business.”

The convention continues today.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217