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Face Time Is Time Well Spent

Posted On: 11/29/2010

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vending, vending machine, vending machine business, vending machine operator, Vending Times, Tim Sanford, vending industry, National Automatic Merchandising Association, CoffeeShow, OneShow, trade show, automatic retailing, office coffee service, OCS

This year has seen a number of changes in the trade show schedule to which we had become familiar. The National Automatic Merchandising Association has shifted its annual convention and exposition to the spring, as OneShow, while expanding its successful Coffee Summit and moving it from late winter to fall, as CoffeeShow. And the Atlantic Coast Exposition, which traditionally had been held in May, was held in October. All three events were well-attended and surprisingly upbeat, given the very slow pace of economic revival and continued high unemployment.

Trade shows always have played a vital role in the creation, organization and progress of commerce and industry. Like almost all human endeavors that continue over time, their popularity varies from year to year and decade to decade. While much of this variation results from the fortunes of the industries they serve, a good deal of it is harder to explain. Changes in supplier marketing and communications strategy, for example, have a real impact. And when business is good, industry members may believe that they have better things to do than to take three days out to attend a convention.

This year's shows have had several things in common. They have attracted a mix of experienced and startup operators, and of younger and older industry members, that we have not seen for three decades. Vending and coffee service continue to appeal strongly to the entrepreneurially minded, which is a strong indicator of their continued vitality.

We also are intrigued by the continuing interest that each method of service holds for practitioners of the other. Coffee service took shape as a distinct kind of operation in the 1960s, when rising labor and fuel costs began to put pressure on older breaktime services, like pre-brewed coffee catering, and on vending in office locations. The new paper-filter drip brewer and the innovative thought of selling packaged roast ground coffee priced by the brewed cup offered a solution.

Several vending operators were prominent among early adopters of the new approach, and as the industry found its feet, many OCS operators found vending a necessary tool for winning large, profitable accounts, while many vending operators responded to location requests for coffee service in the front office. Lately, though, the technical advances and market shifts in both industries have created wider recognition that there are real opportunities in each that cannot be pursued from a purely defensive posture. Vending and OCS operators have a great deal to learn from one another, and the 2010 trade shows all offered excellent forums in which to do it.

And, while we were not surprised by the generally smaller exhibits this year -- no one has been having a particularly good time -- we did find the absence of some suppliers rather odd. We continue to hope that the apparently widespread belief that making an effort to sell something will interfere with cost-cutting measures is a passing fancy, and eventually, cooler heads will regain control.

Offsetting that absence, and very promising, was the appearance of a number of new suppliers and service providers. We expect to see more and more of them in the future; smaller and more agile companies see underserved, imaginative market segments as an opportunity, not a distraction.

Another element contributing to the strength of this year's conventions was the resurgence of intrusive government. We have not seen anything quite like the present taxation and regulation environment since the 1970s. One observation that often was made during the upswing in coffee service that took place a quarter of a century ago was that OCS operators, unlike their vending counterparts, never had confronted the kind of active hostility that conditioned the early years of the modern vending industry. Coffee service trade groups were not formed by people facing the threat of being put out of business.

Today, though, coffee service is positioned to appear on the more powerful radar of those who have an interest in more widespread regulation and can find targets everywhere, from allied products to solid waste. Trade associations again have become essential to survival, and their conventions serve as a vital communication and organizational mechanism.

Above all, this year's industry events demonstrated that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction between buyers and sellers, and close-up examination of a machine or a product.

There also is no equivalent to the exchange of information among people who grapple with similar problems. Many years ago, an industry leader described it this way: "If you and I have a dollar each, and I give you mine and you give me yours, neither of us is any richer. But if I give you an idea and you give me one, each of us benefits from the transaction."

Above all, conventions and trade shows continue to demonstrate that, although the Internet is a remarkable medium for learning more about something that interests you, a walk through an exhibit remains unmatched as a way to find out about things you've never seen nor thought of.