In the 1950s, the motion picture industry felt itself challenged by the rapid acceptance of home television receivers, and conducted market research to identify benefits enjoyed by moviegoers that were not available to people watching TV in their living-rooms. Other than the larger screen, better picture quality and superior sound system, it turned out that the experience of seeing a movie in a theater was enhanced by what the researchers called, for short, "the audience effect" -- not as the psychologists study "audience effect" in athletes and others who perform in public, but in the specialized sense of the heightened awareness an individual exhibits when experiencing something as part of a group.
For example, when you were watching (say) Fort Ti in 1953 (about the time of those studies), and the defenders of the fortress fired a cannon out into the audience, everybody ducked behind the seats. People watching at home were much less likely to do that, even discounting the power of the three-dimensional view afforded by the theater's stereoscopic polarizing projection system.
This discovery came to mind as we attended the 2011 National Automatic Merchandising Association's Coffee, Tea and Water conference in Las Vegas and the 57th annual Atlantic Coast Exposition in Myrtle Beach immediately afterward. Both events were extremely well attended by enthusiastic industry members eager to learn something, and they had many opportunities to do so at the diverse educational programs available at each conference. These not only explored many subjects well worth thinking about, but also enabled the participants to discuss those subjects with the presenters and fellow conference-goers -- and, in many cases, to follow up the new lines of thought they inspired by studying the relevant displays at the exhibits, and speaking at greater lengths with the developers.
And there were many exhibitors this year, strongly suggesting that manufacturers and suppliers have remembered the value of face-to-face interaction with customers and prospects, and the importance of offering people considering a purchase the chance to "kick the tires." Both events provided this in abundance.
There certainly were a lot of tires to kick at each. We can recall several periods in the history of these industries in which showgoers were heard to complain, "there's nothing new on the floor." This certainly is not one of those periods. An example of the heightened awareness of group experiences is the very rapid and perhaps partly nonverbal spread of interest in something new at a trade show exhibit.
It is odd that the contemporary marketing culture places so high a premium on "interactivity," while it has shied away from support for occasions on which customers, prospects and suppliers really can interact. We often have pointed out that the new media that have emerged from the intersection of computers and telecommunications are wonderful resources for learning more about something one already knows about. However, there are real limitations. For one, you have to know what you're looking for; and for another, you often cannot track down one or two facts you really need -- such as, "what kind of connector is that?" These questions all can be answered by looking closely at the actual product; a video flyaround recorded at 72 dots per inch and posted on YouTube doesn't come close.
So the recent conventions have given us reason for hope: operators evidently see promising new vistas opening up before them, and suppliers appear to have regained their awareness of the value of supporting industry get-togethers and showing their wares in the round, and in person.
There are a great many new products on the market, and there is renewed recognition on the part of their manufacturers that the vending and office refreshments industry has an incomparable role to play in obtaining trial for new beverages, snacks and food items by a very broad adult demographic, at relatively low cost. This marketing approach has worked very well in the past, and there is every reason to believe that it will keep on working.
We continue to believe, too, that there is great value in periodic events that knit an industry together by heightening awareness of its distinctive identity, yet another process that is partly nonverbal. The need for such ceremonies may have been more widely recognized when the workplace services business was new and misunderstood, but it should not be allowed to lapse. While we can recall a time when just about everyone was a pioneer, we are increasingly aware that we are entering an era in which almost everyone is going to be a pioneer again. It is important to commemorate these milestones, to honor achievement and inspire emulation.
At the same time, we always are aware of a continuing tension between two conflicting imperatives in convention planning: the widespread desire to keep such events as short as possible, and the need to allow enough time for the participants to sit in on, or see, everything that interests them. There is no perfect solution to this dilemma, but it needs to be kept in mind.