The upcoming National Automatic Merchandising Association Spring Expo in Las Vegas will be the last in an annual series of conventions dating back to 1960. We think it is essential that everyone attend who possibly can do so. Not only will it provide short-term benefits to the registrants, but it can also be important to the long-term health of the industry as a whole. It may bear repeating what we and many others have said before: Anyone interested in a business, whether presently engaged in it or thinking about entry, can learn more in two days of attending seminars and walking a trade show than would be possible in six months of seeking information in any other way. We have a high regard for the Internet as a resource, but nothing compares with being able to pick up or walk around a product while speaking with the people who manufacture or distribute it – not even Flash animation coupled with live chat.
Similarly, actually taking part in a business session provides a greater breadth of information than any online presentation. Things like "webinars" can provide a useful overview of a topic or detailed information about one aspect of it. But computer technology has not yet advanced to the point at which it can come close to matching the give-and-take between speakers and audience in a live workshop, and we don't see how it even can match the ability to compare notes and trade views with other participants afterwards.
But attending the Spring Expo this year has strategic as well as tactical value, on several fronts. There is first the question of the survival of trade shows.
The Spring Expo was organized half a century ago because the California Automatic Vendors Association had been holding its own annual show, as many state associations had. NAMA had established its innovative State Council affiliation program to offer those state organizations professional legal administrative and communications services in return for their agreement not to sponsor their own trade shows.
The California group wished to affiliate, but pointed out that operators on the West Coast and in the mountain states often found it difficult to get to Chicago or Miami for the NAMA annual convention. Air travel, at that time, was in its infancy, and this argument had a good deal of force. NAMA's Western Council coordinated an agreement under which the national association would conduct a trade show primarily for the benefit of the industry in the west for the next 25 years.
The first of these in 1960 was held about a month after the 1959 annual convention and was an immediate success – so much so that, very soon thereafter, it was expanded to include extensive education and rescheduled in the spring.
This arrangement made good sense, and still does. The logic of staging the annual show in the late fall or early winter had been to showcase new products at the time when operators generally were preparing their budgets for the coming year. As the industry expanded and attracted a broader spectrum of exhibitors, the pace of new product introductions increased and it was possible to turn a semiannual spotlight on them. The pace of change was accelerating in general, and an increasing range of subjects that concerned operators needed more frequent updating.
It is worth remembering that NAMA's agreement to hold the Western Show expired in the mid-1980s. As that time approached, the nation was afflicted by a severe economic downturn and the vending industry was engaged in a sometimes-agonizing debate about its future prospects in an economy that was turning away from heavy industry. There was talk of letting the Western Show expire. Fortunately, things began to look up, vending regained its confidence and the event continued to the great benefit of the industry – and perhaps especially for the increasing number of new operators we witnessed viewing the exhibits and attending the business sessions.
We have no information about the deliberations leading to the decision to terminate the Spring Expo after this year, but trade shows in general have fallen on bad times. The present economic situation certainly has not helped, but the erosion began early in this decade.
Part of the problem was that many industries that were enjoying robust growth gave rise to entrepreneurial trade show organizers unaffiliated with trade associations, and they made increasing demands on the supplier community. The vending industry played no part in this but suffered from it, as potential exhibitors who decided that there were altogether too many trade shows tended to cut across the board. We might wish that they would make practical distinctions about what to cut, as we wish they would when reducing their advertising across the board, but what's done is done.
In good times, it is easy to lose sight of the things that unite the members of an industry, and to regard trade associations as pleasant social organizations. They are that, but they were established for sterner purposes. Now, if ever, it is essential for operators to come together and emphasize their identity as an industry to their suppliers, and to stand ready to act in unison when the need arises. As Benjamin Frankin reminded the fractious representatives of the 13 colonies: "If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately." The last Spring Expo is the time for use to start hanging together.