By the time you read this column, many of you will be on your way to the National Automatic Merchandising Association Spring Expo or the Amusement Showcase International; both are being held concurrently in Las Vegas at the end of March. If you’ve never been to either of these events, now’s your chance to check out both shows for the price of one plane ticket.
This coming May, I will have been with VENDING TIMES for 20 years, and during that time I’ve attended my share of vending and amusement conventions. The shows have gotten smaller since the late ‘80s, but many of the same friendly faces are still there to greet me, and that’s a comforting feeling. In last month’s column I spoke about investing in the future, and those familiar faces are indicative of others who share my passion and commitment to the industry. In fact, speaking of dedication, AMOA celebrates its 60th anniversary this year (see VT’s editorial “Salute to a Winner” in the January issue). Congratulations to a fine organization!
Sadly, some of our industry friends are no longer with us, a regrettable effect of the passage of time. But in many vending, amusement and coffee service operations the legacy lives on with the second and third generations. This is a testament to our great industry. I’ve now reached an age where I can proudly say that I’ve known the parents and the children. And one comment that I’ve heard from both generations of operators and manufacturers alike, is that they’d never work this hard if it wasn’t so much fun!
While the dedication of my industry colleagues and friends is inspiring, I always look forward to making the acquaintance of first-time exhibitors and operator showgoers. As I’ve often said, someone is going to provide self-service refreshments and entertainment in the future, and I want it to be our readers.
During the last few months leading up to NAMA and ASI, I’ve spoken with many new suppliers who are interested in learning more about this industry. Those who I’ve talked with appear to be doing their homework, asking intelligent questions and approaching the business with prudent optimism. Their energy is refreshing and, I hope, contagious.
I’ve been in this business long enough to have witnessed a few bad apples spoiling the bunch: blue-sky companies who come in with grand plans that delude gullible investors and hang them out to dry. Others had some great ideas and the best of intentions, but without proper financing, were unable to get the item into production. Some suppliers didn’t get the right patents and/or trademarks and had to close up shop due to the threat of litigation by companies with deeper pockets. And still others just don’t want to play by the rules of our three-tiered industry.
I admit, I am skeptical whenever I get a call from a newbie entering the market. If it’s a supplier I always ask: Is this product packaged and labeled properly to dispense through a vending machine? Have you thought about a distribution network to get your product in the hands of operators? If the caller is a manufacturer, I inquire, is this machine sized properly to fit into a bank of machines? Is it equipped with an industry-standard payment system interface? Where will operators get parts and service if the machine malfunctions?
But the folks I’ve spoken with lately answered these questions before I had the chance to ask them. Many of them have researched the market, and the product has been under development for several years. Some will walk one or the other (or both) of the spring shows, but wait until fall for their big launches. I admire this methodical approach. Above all, this activity tells me that our industry is seen as an opportunity by outside innovators.
A story I like to tell – it is not a joke – is how my father used to talk to people who literally walked in off the streets of Manhattan, without an appointment, to sit in his office and learn about the vending industry. My dad entertained them all in his unique Vic Lavay fashion. He dispensed sage advice, and some of them went on to tell their own success stories. You may even be one of them!
Of course, the landscape has changed. We’re all working twice as hard to earn the same nickel, and time has become a scarce and precious commodity. Notwithstanding all of this, we all still need to make ourselves available to newcomers and share our experiences with them. I’ve had manufacturers tell me that they only want to focus on the 20% of their customers who do 80% of the business. I know many may not agree with me, but I think this approach is short-sighted. Many of these so-called “little guys” are now playing in the big leagues, and I’m happy to know that VT has contributed to that growth.
Over the decades, there has been some difference of opinion in trade association ranks over the desirability of reaching out to new operators. Some members have felt that this just creates more competition, and the better approach is to ignore them and hope they wither on the vine. The more statesman-like view is that you are going to have new competitors anyway, and it makes good sense to educate them so they do not make costly mistakes that hurt everyone in the market, before they fold. Luckily, the National Automatic Merchandising Association has taken that approach; the introductions to vending and coffee service presented at NAMA Expos have given a great many enthusiastic newcomers a solid grounding in sales and financial management.
Trade magazines, too, have a role to play. The difficulty for any publication is that it cannot be written as a primer for people outside an industry; it must serve the people already in it. All the same, we’ve always done our best to assist anyone who has asked us for information.
While nowadays, we prefer that you call first, VENDING TIMES will always help educate anyone who is interested in learning more about this great business of ours. This is one of the reasons we do what we do. We’ve got archives dating back 60 years, and we are happy to share them with you. If you can’t make it to New York City, stop by our booth at one of the upcoming trade shows. We’ll be at both spring NAMA and ASI in Las Vegas this month. And I urge all the old-timers (like me!) to make room at the table for our new brethren, and encourage their participation. Competition, big or small, is healthy for the growth of our business. We may even learn something from these folks.