The opening decade of the new millennium was not kind to trade shows, which seem to have attained their greatest popularity between the mid-1980s and '90s. We continue to believe that these periodic gatherings play a unique role in broadcasting new ideas, sharing information and showcasing the latest products and services.
For that reason, we were very encouraged by the turnout for the 2012 Atlantic Coast Exposition. The event dates back more than half a century, to an annual get-together arranged by the young North Carolina Vending Association and South Carolina Automatic Merchandising Association (now the South Carolina Vending Association). Those early conventions alternated between the two states.
The regional vending showcase grew in popularity; by 1970, it was drawing substantial attendance from adjacent states, especially Virginia, and had become large enough to require professional management. The Automatic Vendors Association of Virginia (now Virginia Automatic Merchandising Association) became a cosponsor, and the convention settled in Myrtle Beach, SC, which always had been its most popular venue. The three-state convention and trade show became the Atlantic Coast Exposition, and embarked on a decade and a half of steady expansion.
Changes in the economy and the composition of the vending industry caused supplier participation in trade shows generally, and regional ones in particular, to decline. Consolidation led to fewer suppliers, and to the perception that there were fewer operating companies (there really weren't, but the number of medium-sized independents declined and the very smallest companies had reasons for wishing to remain small). Manufacturing employment, the traditional mainstay of the vending business, declined.
These developments checked the continued growth of vending shows. And, during the uncertainty that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, new media seemed to hold the promise of virtually unlimited communication with customers and prospects without the need for ever going to the trouble of meeting and talking with them.
Through all this, a substantial number of operators in the Carolinas and Virginia kept on working diligently to preserve the annual convention. Some became prominent during the early growth of the full-line vending industry, and have remained active; others are relative newcomers who have become leaders. Their uncompensated labors brought ACE through a dark period, but this year's show suggests that it has turned the corner and is on the upswing.
The social aspects of ACE always have been a draw for industry members, by no means all of them from the Southeast. This appeal cannot be separated from the more concrete value of the exhibits and the educational programs. There is no substitute for hearing about something new in a business session, taking a close look at it in the exhibit area and getting details from the experts in the booth, and then discussing it with others (some of whom may be using it already) in a relaxed, informal setting.
There has been a widespread belief, over the past decade or so, that the "information superhighway" would obsolete that kind of in-person engagement. But the recognition now is growing that the Internet is a remarkable tool for finding out more about something of which you're already aware -- not for discovering new, valuable things. The Internet also is a fruitful source of opinions, the origins of which often cannot be determined.
There also is value in getting together with others in the same line of work, and learning that the problems one confronts are common to others, some of whom have come up with solutions.
Above all, there is the multiplying effect of sharing information. A chairman of the National Automatic Merchandising Association used to point out that, if he had a dollar and you had another, simply exchanging them would leave each party with one dollar. But if he had an idea and you had another, and you exchanged them, both parties would walk away with two ideas.
We think the stalwarts who have piloted ACE through stormy economic and social seas are beginning to see positive results; their labors have not been unavailing. This year's Expo saw more exhibitors and an influx of new operators. Participants had much to discuss, from new concepts like micromarkets to legislative and regulatory developments affecting the business, all of which were explored at the conference. There was a distinctly upbeat atmosphere in the exhibit area, a sense that the vending business is presented with promising new opportunities, and the industry is more exciting today than it has been in years.
The National Automatic Merchandising Association also has been sustained through difficult times by a devoted core of operators and suppliers who have recognized the irreplaceable benefit of an annual forum. We owe thanks to all of these people, who have retained the sense of vending's uniqueness and importance through good times and bad.