I've just returned from the Amusement Expo in Las Vegas. This event has replaced the annual trade shows long held by the Amusement and Music Operators Association and the American Amusement Machine Association. This year, for the first time, the National Bulk Vendors Association staged its annual convention and trade show in conjunction with the Amusement Expo, too. Exhibitors and operators seemed pleased with this arrangement. I found the mood at the show upbeat, and I believe that we all can benefit from shows that address the entire market.
I'm sure not everyone will agree with this optimistic assessment. Several people for whom I have the highest regard believe the consolidation of our shows is a symptom of decay, a loss of enthusiasm on the part of operators and of interest among the manufacturers.
But it also can be seen as another lament for the good old days, the passing of a Golden Age. An industry historian with whom I have the pleasure to work often tells me that those good old days were seldom as rosy as they may appear in retrospect. Billy Joel summarized this in his song "Keeping the Faith" --
The good old days weren't always good
And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.
There is a famous book by the celebrated archivist Otto Bettmann (The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible!) which illustrates the squalor and brutality experienced by most people at the end of the 19th Century. Bettmann compiled it as a corrective to the nostalgic glow that infuses false memories -- and leads people to complain about the depersonalized, mass-market present. Matters could be much worse, and they have been.
Of course, one can't live in the future either. Much opinion today is entirely uncompromising, holding that there is one Next Big Thing, and anything else is doomed. This is as unhelpful and destructive as wistful nostalgia. Trade shows go through cycles; the 1980s and '90s were, in retrospect, their high point. The amusement and music, vending and coffee service industry is by no means the only one to witness consolidation and contraction of these events. They probably will experience an upturn, when prospective exhibitors come to terms with the "new media" and rediscover the importance of face-to-face selling. A robust economic recovery wouldn't hurt, either.
Meanwhile, the industry is undergoing many changes that also are provoking laments from people in all segment of the business: consolidation, new forms of competition, dishonest rivals are threatening the independent operator, or broker, or specialist supplier. And they are right to complain about this; the difficulty is in knowing what to do about it.
We are presented with new forms of communication, new financial reporting demands, the erosion of traditional compartments between business types, and changes of all kinds. There is little point in saying that things might have been different. Perhaps they might have; we will never know. The question is, what do we do next?
The whole point is that the evolution we are now experiencing should lead to a more flexible, mix-and-match environment in which everyone enjoys a wider range of options.
The three-tiered model of operator, distributor/broker and manufacturer/supplier has real advantages, and they remain valid today. That does not mean that other models cannot emerge or will not work. It should be remembered that specialist operators and distributors scarcely existed at all until the end of World War II, and brokers, until the 1970s. All of these groups formed in response to changes that presented new opportunities and created different demands. Many of these changes seemed alarming at the time, and indeed they were. Organizations that could not adapt vanished. Those that did adapt, and new ones that formed to meet the new demands, often survived.
Our industry, and all its various segments, are said to be "mature." This often is said sadly by people mourning the loss of the pioneering spirit of the bold innovators who brought entirely new products and services to undeveloped, eager markets. It wasn't always quite like that, of course, but there is a core of truth. Today, the lament goes, prospects only care about price … my historian comrade observes that people have been saying that for as long as he can remember, which extends back to the late 1960s.
There's another way to define maturity that I think is more useful: a recognition of all the things one does not know, a willingness to keep on learning, growing and adapting to new surroundings. Let's focus our energy on looking for the opportunities presented by our changing environment (changing environments always create new demands), and above all, let's not allow a remembered past to stand in our way.