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NAMA Spring Expo Draws Record Crowds, Addresses Evolving Market Needs

Posted On: 5/9/2005

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LAS VEGAS - The fast-evolving world of workplace refreshment and food services was reviewed at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2005 Spring Expo here. This year's event was the strongest in years, according to NAMA senior vice-president and chief operating officer Dan Mathews.

"The show was simply spectacular," Mathews said. "From the sold-out Quality Coffee Certification Program and third annual Western Golf Classic through to Saturday's educational sessions, this was a powerful show."

Contributing to the success was this year's first-ever co-location of the annual Better Vendors Association convention with the NAMA Spring Expo, to benefit the members of both organizations. BVA is a nonprofit purchasing cooperative founded in 1970 and owned by independent operators across the country.

BVA executive director Brian Faley reported that the joint convention worked very well. "Overall, it was extremely successful for us," he said. "Our suppliers and operators have all told us they think combining our two shows was a winning match."

Representatives of 115 BVA operating company members attended the NAMA Spring Expo. "In our 36 years of having a national meeting, this was the most-well-attended," Faley summed up. "Everyone thought it was a real winner."

The streamlined Spring Expo offered two days of exhibits and workshops and a third day devoted to in-depth seminars. The formal program led off with a general session

"Things are changing for the better in this industry," said NAMA senior vice-chairman James H. Terry, The Coca-Cola Co. (Atlanta, GA), who presided at the opening event. Terry stood in for chairman Steven D. Ross, Bertsch Services (Warsaw, IN), who was unable to attend.

Terry hailed the ongoing innovation in  products, equipment and services on display at the Expo as an index of the industry's vitality and ability to adapt rapidly to new market demands. He cited the outpouring of wellness-oriented products as an example of this flexibility and responsiveness.

NAMA president and chief executive officer Richard M. Geerdes brought the membership up to date on the association's "Endowing the Future" fundraising drive, designed to sustain programs strengthening the industry's strategic position. The first of these is "Balanced for Life," a broad-spectrum education and marketing campaign that emphasizes the sound nutritional choices available through vending machines in the context of a healthy lifestyle that includes daily physical activity.

Terry presented a $1 million contribution from Coca-Cola to the NAMA Foundation's "Endowing the Future" campaign, and Geerdes also accepted a $500,000 donation on behalf of Mars Inc.'s Masterfoods USA, MEI and Flavia Beverage Systems  units from Jim English. The fundraising drive, whose target is $5 million, has passed the $3.6 million mark, Geerdes reported.

Attending the NAMA Spring Expo were representatives of America Scores, a nationwide organization headquartered in New York City whose mission is to inspire in urban children a lasting dedication to education, healthy living and civic responsibility. It does this through an innovative mixture of soccer and creative writing, and several young participants were on hand to describe the program. America Scores is a partner in the "Balanced for Life" effort.

Also in attendance was "Balanced for Life" dietitian Lori Valencic, who met with NAMA members to discuss the goals of the campaign and answer questions on nutrition and health.

At the general session, Geerdes emphasized that the "Balanced for Life" target audience extends far beyond schoolchildren. Growing national (and international) concern over the increasing incidence of overweight and obesity is conditioning public attitudes toward everything from computers and television to restaurants, and the vending industry can make an important contribution to modifying the American lifestyle in positive ways.

The NAMA Foundation also underwrites a variety of programs designed to further continuing education for industry members. These include the executive development course offered at The School for Hospitality Business at Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI) and a growing scholarship program.

Brad Ellis of Crane Merchandising Systems announced a contribution of $12,000 toward these educational initiatives, including two additional scholarships. Geerdes and past chairman Richard E. Atnip, Atnip Co. (Fullerton, CA) conducted a drawing to determine the five winning applicants for scholarships from the 175 applications received. Geerdes recalled that, in the program's first year, there were eight applicants for two scholarships.


Keynoting the general session was Doug Lipp, a renowned speaker on customer service and leadership who was the head of training at Disney Studio's Walt Disney University. He is the author of Even Monkeys Fall From Trees: The Balance of Art and Science for Outstanding Customer Service and The Changing Face of Today's Customer.

Lipp led off by demonstrating that one can deliver a clear, accurate message that will not be received by an audience, if one does not engage that audience by sparking interest and attracting attention. "All business is show business," he emphasized, and the question for managers is what role they wish to play in the production.

"And you must be willing to change if you wish to remain the same," he added. Change imposed from outside can push an organization in unexpected and often undesirable directions. An example is the imposition of government regulations on an industry that fails to discipline itself while it still has the freedom to do so in ways not incompatible with its purposes.

The difficulty about change, Lipp pointed out, is that it almost always involves doing new things at which one is not yet skilled, and no longer doing some of the things at which one is expert. This almost always leads to a temporary drop in productivity and quality. This is cited by many managers as a reason for resisting change.

"It is a valid concern," the speaker said. "However, the main obstacle often is ego, an unwillingness to leave one's comfort zone. Some sacred cows are valuable, but you mustn't put them in charge."

Ironically, this can be a particularly severe problem for very successful organizations. Executives who have every reason to say, "We're so good," run the risk of becoming complacent. A company that accomplishes one mission very well is inconstant danger of becoming a "one-trick pony" , and failing to modify that one trick to keep up with changing circumstances and demands. "Revere the legacy, but don't hang out there," he advised.

Other obstacles to successful adaptation to a changing market include the formation of functional groups that do not communicate well and which tend to blame another group when anything goes wrong. That, in turn, gives customers the impression of being told, "Don't interrupt us; we're fighting among ourselves. Can't you see that we're busy?" Lipp warned.

A proactive approach to employee training, on the other hand, is an essential way to maintain maneuverability and cope with a changing world. Lipp depicted the manager standing on a cliff that represents the present state, and looking across a gulch at another cliff representing the desired future state. The staff has to bridge or fill the gulch, and will have a difficult time doing it without training, guidance and empowerment, he said.

Two corollaries are, first, that employees should be screened carefully for their abilities to contribute to bridge-building. "Don't hire 'warm bodies' that you'll just have to fire in six months," Lipp urged. And second, that managers should plan their actions with an eye toward encouraging the necessary flexibility and imagination. "Do what you say you're going to do; walk the walk," he advised.

Important in encouraging a team spirit favorable to innovation is recognizing the value of perspective: "Things look different to other people," the speaker pointed out. This is why the proverbial two heads are better than one: each sees something that the other is missing.

Perspective, and the danger of group finger-pointing, make cross-training, and setting up a system in which everyone gets to do someone else's job for a while, very valuable.

At present, service industries in general confront the need for a certain kind of change, Lipp added. With 16% of the U.S. population now foreign-born, it is becoming necessary to "act like an international company at home," he explained. "Look for the opportunities, and seek out 'culture coaches' to help you take advantage of them."

Not all groups with particular needs are foreign-born. Lipp reported that a Starbucks store manager in Southern California found that 25 to 30 customers made regular visits on Friday evenings, and all of them had impaired hearing. The manager formed an impromptu focus group to make suggestions for changes the store might implement that would make it more appealing to these people.

The best were, first, a "markable" menu on which the patron could check off his or her selection, and a code to be marked on the cup by the clerk filling the order. The cups are delivered to a station at which an employee calls out the number being served; the change here was to give the coded cups to an employee who would be able to "sign" the number rather than speak it. The manager did these things, and found that the patrons told their friends and acquaintances, resulting in more and more traffic.

"Those changes cost about $500 to make, and resulted in 1000% growth," Lipp explained. "So walk in your customers' shoes."

He recommended that managers always keep in mind the need for balance. There always are opposing goods: science vs. art, quality vs. quantity, skills vs. attitude, maintenance vs. risk-taking and so on. A leader can be a visionary; a manager must be expert at the start-continue-stop routines essential for daily operations.

And keeping balance in mind also helps when a skilled, valuable employee makes a mistake. This will happen, the speaker concluded; when it does, it is important to remember that "even monkeys fall from trees."