Among the more striking changes to have taken place over the past decade and a half is the erosion of trade shows, and not just in the coffee service and vending industries. Pretty much across the board, trade groups have been seeking to amalgamate their shows with the idea of bolstering attendance through widening the appeal. In fact, the vending industry has fared well compared to many others; the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s National and Spring Expos – the latter in preparation as we go to press – have more than held their own in terms of their ability to attract new exhibitors and, through astute public relations efforts, garner favorable media attention.
Long-time industry observers have been lamenting what they regard as a falling away of group spirit as vending and coffee service have matured. There is nothing new about this. The first time we heard the complaint, "We don’t seem to have as much fun as we used to" was around 1971. Evidently, the late ‘50s represented the Golden Age of conventions, and it has been all downhill ever since.
This is understandable enough. None of us is getting any younger, and the novelty of anything wears off after a few years. Beyond that, the innovators who create something new – full-line vending, office coffee service, or whatever – develop a strong sense of affiliation, just as the microcomputer pioneers did in the late 1970s. They speak the same language, they encounter the same misunderstandings and difficulties, they have undergone the same trials and tribulations. When they get together, they often put on comic skits and sing parodic songs based on that shared experience (our favorite was the Illinois Automatic Merchandising Council’s rousing version of Those Were the Days ...my friend, when vendors used to vend...")
As the industry grows, attracts new members who don’t need to do as much pioneering, begins to develop a second and a third generation, and forms a widening range of amalgams and alliances with other kinds of enterprise, it is unrealistic to expect that old in-group spirit to endure. While "we may not have as much fun as we used to" at conventions, we do have the opportunity to learn more about a wider range of subjects, and to hear a variety of informed opinions on current topics. Each generation will get what it wants from its collegial activities, and this is at it should be.
Nevertheless, it would be unwise to ignore certain hazards that lie ahead. Perhaps the most alarming is simply the boredom that seems to afflict marketing people nowadays. Dazzled by the (relatively) new ability of wide-area networks to create simultaneous annoyance for millions of people on six continents, these proponents of "thinking outside the box" often grow impatient with "linear" or Consciousness Two communication tools like industry trade shows. There is some reason to believe that the worst of this "outside-the-box" business has passed, but the impulse is continually renewed by ongoing technical advance.
Another difficulty is related to long-term economic change, and no resolution is in prospect. Travel has gotten a lot more expensive, and a lot more tedious, too. In the ‘70s, it was not uncommon for an operating company to bring not only its supervisors, but often its technicians and route drivers to a convention. There were real advantages in doing that, but it’s no longer practical, and is not likely to become so again any time soon. It always has been known that the quality of attendance, not the number of bodies, is the gauge of a successful show; but that eternal truth is not always apparent to the inexperienced.
Yet another is that operators who do not remember the brave old days of looming legislative threats, massive misunderstanding and incomprehension, and peculiar product requirements – all of which required continual demonstrations of industry solidarity – may not be fully aware of how far these industries have come, nor just how transient the present era of good feeling may be. The present international hullabaloo about nutrition and obesity is likely to get much worse before it gets better, and it behooves every operator (and every concerned citizen) to pay close attention.
Industry conventions and trade shows have never been more important, and deserve everyone’s support and attendance.