The consensus is that the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s 2012 OneShow was the association’s best annual show in a long time, and we wholeheartedly agree. At long last, the various new technologies that have been under development since the turn of the century are working together, economically and reliably. And suppliers seem to be regaining their excitement about vending, too.
The convention programming was up to NAMA’s usual high standard, and the shift to Las Vegas imparted its customary lift to attendance. There were, as there always are, some small dissatisfiers; that the convention program book was (again) too wide to fit in a pocket or small handbag is one that stands out. Overall, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and the overall impression it made was that we have emerged from a tunnel, back into the sunlight.
And this raises a question. Trade shows have their own ongoing history; we have fond memories of NAMA expositions dating back to 1968. Out of curiosity, we looked back at our coverage of the 1972 event, which was held in Atlantic City, four years before New Jersey legalized casino gambling in that declining seaside resort. Forty years ago, the show attracted 155 exhibitors, and ran (as NAMA conventions did in that era) for four days, opening on Thursday morning and closing late Sunday afternoon.
We have participated in a good many discussions about trade shows, as they have increased and decreased in favor over the years. This industry’s events tended, historically, to run through weekends, because local operators who had to run their businesses themselves could not leave for the show before the close of business on Friday. Many other industries followed the same logic.
This proved very taxing to exhibitors who covered vending and foodservice. They had many regional and local restaurant events to attend, and complained bitterly about having to spend another weekend away from home. Attendance at the Sunday exhibit also tended to be light, which was good for serious showgoers who wished to have serious discussions with the half-dozen or so exhibitors whose products had most interested them. There weren’t a great many such visitors, and many exhibitors thought the last day was a waste of time. For those reasons, there has been a gradual move out into the week and a tendency to shorten events.
And so there has been a steady decrease in exhibit hours. For example, the 1972 trade show provided 20.5 hours (1,230 minutes) to view the 155 exhibits, or 7.9 minutes per display. Four decades later, this year’s show drew 245 exhibitors and allowed 14.5 hours (870 minutes) to view them: 3.55 minutes per exhibit. It will be remembered, too, that the NAMA Western Convention in the spring offered additional opportunities to those who wished to “kick the tires” in person. For the record, the 1972 Western show drew 85 exhibitors and offered 14.5 exhibit hours over three days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday).
Many things have changed since 1972, of course. The sheer novelty of the vending industry has dwindled over time, and vending has moved steadily toward the retailing mainstream. Access to vendible products is much wider today (although there still is work to be done). Many accessories originally developed for vending now are commonplace in foodservice. And the Internet has provided an entirely new medium for the delivery of information (but there still is work to be done here, too).
Still, the proliferation of technology and the influx of exhibitors unfamiliar with vending has created a new situation. The encounters generated by these developments often involve lengthier discussion and demonstrations, and may raise questions that prompt a showgoer to make a repeat visit to the exhibitor.
While the exhibits at the 1972 show generally displayed incremental improvements and refinements rather than innovation, we recall that there were many new things on display at the 1992 NAMA show: novel types of packaged cold drink and frozen equipment, for example, and new computer tools for inventory control and category management. The 1992 NAMA exposition, held in Washington, DC, ran on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; exhibits were open for six hours each day: 1,080 minutes, or 4.37 exhibit-minutes (to coin a measurement).
Trade associations will do what the majority of their members want them to do, and current trade show planning is based on those members’ experiences over the past decade. We certainly can sympathize with the preference for short and sweet trade shows. At the same time, though, we suggest that the ideal duration varies with the number of exhibitors and the number of registrants – and that there is a critical minimum length; further shortening risks rendering the whole activity irrelevant.
We suspect that the vending industry is beginning one of its periodic upswings, accelerating the entry of newcomers to operating and expanding the exhibitor roster. It may be time to think about ways to increase the exhibit hours.