Orlando, Fl - Although attendance at the 53rd annual convention of the National Bulk Vendors Association was down this year, you couldn't tell it by speaking to the participants. Both operators and manufacturers remained upbeat during the event, which was held April 10th through the 12th at the Wyndham Palace Resort and Spa in Orlando, Florida. Drawing a total of 605 participants from a near record of last year's total of 762, the event was one of the liveliest in recent history. Even with a slight drop in exhibitors, down to 49 from 52 in 2002, and a corresponding decline in booth space from 129 in 2002 to 109 this year, those who attended did not walk away disappointed.
If the slump in attendance was initially feared on the part of show organizers, those fears were quickly dispelled by the quality of the event itself. The war in Iraq, a sluggish economy and general decline in all travel, according to show organizers, did impact the numbers. However, those who journeyed to the Sunshine State were not disappointed.
New equipment, new merchandise and new suppliers were in abundance at the Florida meet. And those operators who came in search of the new, novel and up to the minute merchandise and equipment were not disappointed. An informal survey of operators showed that many had let their inventories run low in anticipation of the event. Despite reduced booth space and attendance, manufacturers cited brisk sales and enthusiasm from operators for both new product lines of merchandise and equipment. And, according to reports, at least one exhibitor wrote so many orders that booth personnel literally ran short of order forms.
"The sales were surprisingly strong for a great many exhibitors," said NBVA's general counsel, Morrie Much. "I wasn't surprised that the attendance was down. Travel is generally 30% to 40% down. I thought the exhibitors would feel it, and on the contrary, some of them were just beaming afterwards. The people who came were serious buyers. The workshops continue to be very strong and very popular. They're well attended and there's a lot of activity in there. I think that's a remarkable plus, especially for smaller operators."
Indeed, the show far surpassed any dire predictions from pre-event naysayers by exhibiting a rather stark contrast between the downward numbers and soaring spirits.
This was also seen by AAMA manufacturers, which continued to provide a strong showing with 10 exhibitors offering game equipment to bulk operators seeking to expand their portfolios of equipment.
While many were pleased and even surprised at the turn-out and positive tone of the show, others saw the overall positive result as a sign of a healthy industry in general and a strong trade association in particular.
"We're probably stronger at this time than we've ever been. We definitely are," said incoming president Frank A. La Vecchia, Jr. of Tropical Vending (Cataño, Puerto Rico). "Considering how tough times are, we are very fortunate to be in the situation we are. Yes, overall maybe we are down a little bit, but compared to every other association we're doing a lot stronger than everyone else."
This generally optimistic attitude regarding the show was also reflected in comments made by operators large and small who noted the event as one of the most professionally rewarding in recent years, due in no small measure to the ever-improving roster of workshops and seminars.
A highlight of the Florida meet was the election of a new slate of officers to the association. Outgoing NBVA president Neel Clark welcomed the new slate of officers that includes incoming preseident Frank A. La Vecchia, Jr.,Tropical Vending, (Cataño, Puerto Rico); vice-president, Howard Smuschkowitz, Concord Confections; secretary, Daniel L. Case, Tejas Distributors (Round Rock, Texas); and treasurer, Peter Becker, of L.M. Becker & Co.
"I think from a financial standpoint and from the legislative standpoint, I believe we've accomplished a lot," said Neel Clark, looking back on his tenure as association president. "With the climate of the economy today, we have not been able to accomplish all we wanted. There were some issues we didn't get to, but I think we accomplished a lot. And I'm pleased."
Indeed, Clark, who helmed the association for the past two years, has been noted as among the most dedicated and effective association presidents in recent history.
"Neel loves the association and the association has been a big part of his life. And he gave a lot of his time and a lot of this effort," said La Vecchia. "He was a dedicated NBVA president and it will definitely be hard to fill his shoes."
Looking ahead, La Vecchia sees one of his biggest challenges in continuing the work to make the association more inclusive. "We have a lot of young, smaller route guys who want to get involved. And that's one of the things I want to emphasize," he explained. "We want to get everyone in the association involved. I'm looking for new blood. And I know there's a lot of younger guys who have gotten more involved and I'm looking forward to keeping them involved. I think what we did with our seminars was just fantastic. And our operators' 'Bull Session' was very good. I plan to get those people more involved. I think the future of the association has always been based on the small operator, because the majority of our membership is made up of them."
Additional news coming from the NBVA indicates that the association remains financially healthy, if not outright robust. And, while it was decided to "ease off" on legislative activity in regards to tax relief, due to the prevailing economic climate, the association did agree to continue its scholarship program, which now totals some $15,000 per year.
"The scholarships are one of the gems," said Clark. "I don't think it's necessarily based on the dollar amount. But I think it instills a certain amount of pride in those young people."
MUCH HONORED, MUCH PRAISED
A highlight of the show came during the annual banquet. At the yearly presentation of awards for tennis and golf tournaments, Tom Theisen of Theisen Vending, interrupted the expected announcement of winners to announce the recipient of an entirely different award. Singling out the NBVA's general counsel, Morrie Much, Theisen presented him with the prestigious "Jane Mason/Rose Schiller Lifetime Achievement Award." The highest honor the association can bestow, the award is only presented when a suitable recipient is recognized. For Much, the award comes after 35 years of dedicated service to the association.
"This special achievement award recognizes your lifetime service, and invaluable contributions to the National Bulk Vendors Association," said Theisen, in presenting a surprised Much with the honor. "The association owes you a heartfelt debt of gratitude for your more than three decades of service as counselor, advisor and mentor. You have inspired the membership to grow and challenged the association to evolve. Many of the association's greatest successes could be attributed to your influence, leadership and wisdom."