I've just returned from the 60th annual National Bulk Vendors Association Symposium and Convention in Orlando, and will be on my way to the NAMA OneShow in Chicago as this issue prepares for press. I thought the NBVA show was a productive and worthwhile event, and I'm really glad I made the trip. But whether or not others would agree with that assessment depends on their mindset.
One bulk vending exhibitor I know had a very busy show. The booth was packed with customers all day long. I later found out that appointments had been scheduled many weeks prior to the event, ensuring they made the most efficient use of their time.
This was in welcome contrast to many exhibitors I often observe at trade shows who find it less time-consuming just to sit and wait for someone to discover that they've got the better moustrap, eliminating the need to create interest in advance and to stand at the front of the booth, inviting showgoers to come in and see what they've got. We reap what we sow...
The present era seems not to favor trade shows, and our industry in particular has witnessed a good deal of contraction and consolidation. I suspect that much of this has to do with the gap that has opened between the people who allocate dollars to sales promotion and those who actually go out and sell things. I'm hopeful that the fervent but unfocused belief that the Internet has eliminated the need to waste time actually talking to customers and prospects is fading away in the cold light of reality - but I fear its effects will be with us for a while. In the hope of intensifying that light, let's review the case for trade shows.
I do not think it is unrealistic for a well-defined industry segment to insist on a convention and exhibit that specifically addresses its particular market requirements. Such a show does not have to attract huge crowds; what's wanted is a solid core of substantial buyers who can make it worthwhile for the suppliers who exhibit, and attractive to industry newcomers who recognize the value of seeing "the state of the art" under one roof, in an atmosphere that encourages discussion and the exchange of information and ideas. Historically, that solid core has been able to persuade the industry's major suppliers that it really is in their best interest to exhibit. This obviously is easier to do in a strong economy, but even in down years there's real value in an industry-specific exhibit.
I've been attending the NBVA convention and trade show since 1988 and there were some years when you could have shot a gun across the exhibit area and not hit anybody. But the exhibitors all got to see the dozen or so operators who represented the bulk of their annual sales. Something of this spirit survives at the Atlantic Coast Exhibition in Myrtle Beach, and it's not altogether extinct elsewhere.
The ongoing overlap of industry segments and blurring of boundaries, though, is making it harder to target a trade show to a specific narrow constitutency. Perhaps bulk vending/kiddie rides and amusements/music have come back together after almost six decades, and office coffee service is no longer viewed as a distinct entrepreneurial sector of marginal interest to full-line vending operators. I think we all can benefit from a show addressing a broader market.
As one exhibitor told me when I asked about a possible NBVA show merger with the Amusement Expo in 2011, "I don't care if I see my 10 customers at a show with 100 people or 1,000 people, just as long as I see them."
I certainly agree with that. The trick is to make the event appealing for the "purists" to attend a show that's evolving to appeal to a broader market. Trust me: The traditionalists still exist (albeit fewer in numbers) and we need to encourage their participation. How can we get it?
As noted earlier, a critical question is whether the present flight from trade shows is permanent, or whether it's a response to the weak economy, amplified by pessimism and by the belief that trade shows are obsolete. I just wish the vending and coin-op amusement shows still were backed by the kind of fierce loyalty that used to characterize the trade associations, not so long ago. Most of the reasons we all came together was to foster interaction between like businesses and minds, in order to better deal with issues of vital concern to our industry, and to enhance its image and the reputation of its members for providing quality products and services. It seems to me that this is more important now than ever before.
Our industry, and all its various segments, are mature – it's neither possible nor especially desirable to recreate the youthful (some might say childish) aura that old-timers remember from the vending, music and games shows four decades ago. One index of maturity is a willingness to keep on learning and sharing, and trade shows are a primary forum for doing this. Let's make the most of them.