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IN DEFENSE OF DIFFERENCE: Social Events, Trade Shows And Education Can Benefit From Variety Of Perspectives

Posted On: 2/6/2004

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The National Beverage & Products Association is holding its 19th annual convention and trade show this year, and I'm looking forward to attending. I find it hard to believe, but I've been working at VENDING TIMES for 17 years, and the NBPA show in 1989 (it was the East Coast Coffee Service Association then) was my introduction to the coffee service business. I couldn't have had a better one, and I expect this year's convention to be just as positive.

A new attraction at the 2004 NBPA show is a networking breakfast for women in the industry on Thursday, February 26. Every woman attending the convention, whether a company principal, an employee, a spouse or a well-wisher, is invited. All that's needed is a call to NBPA headquarters at (800) 311-6272 to reserve a spot; there is no registration fee.

I think this is a worthwhile initiative, and I hope it draws a large turnout. I know there are differences of opinion about the  whole question of a network designed specifically for women, or for that matter,  women-in-anything. A few years ago, at a regional convention, one of the seminars was devoted to the problems of women in vending. An operator of our acquaintance who happens to be a woman remarked, forcefully, that she had no problems not shared by her male competitors, and that she would much prefer educational programming that addressed those.


I can see her point, but education is not necessarily limited to the classroom. Networking among your peers often leads to new learning experiences, which is why I think social events for women in the industry are valuable. They encourage a different kind of conversation among the participants - not necessarily better; just different. This can afford new perspectives, and be very enjoyable.

The whole trend of the times seems to be to draw everything toward the center, to minimize differences. I'm sure this is better than exaggerating differences, and fighting about them, but it can restrict inquiry and limit our choices, too.

Two decades ago, there were at least half a dozen strong regional coffee service associations and, of course, the national. The evolution of the coffee service business in the direction of total refreshment, which went hand in hand with the trend toward consolidation that was evident over much of the last decade, has eliminated nearly all of them.

The National Coffee Service Association, of course, was merged into the National Automatic Merchandising Association, and NAMA has done a fine job of maintaining a suite of OCS-specific services and educational programming. More recently, the Mobile Industrial Caterers Association has experimented with scheduling its spring conference at the same time and in the same place as the NAMA Spring Expo, and this seems to have worked well for everyone. The International Bottled Water Association has begun to hold its convention and trade show within a larger event, the World Wide Food Expo last year and BevExpo in 2004.

The past five years have seen a good deal of trade show merging and colocating, in many industries besides ours. It is difficult not to sympathize with a supplier representative whose enthusiasm for one of our events is somewhat lessened by his or her attendance at nine local or regional foodservice shows over the nine preceding weekends. And, during the economic slowdown that became evident in 2001, many suppliers felt it necessary to cut their expenditure on trade shows as part of overall cost-containment programs.

There's some similarity between the issue of social events (or educational institutions, or professional associations) for women and the issue of specialized trade shows. The drawbacks of excessive concentration on differences, whether this takes the form of gender-exclusive functions or exhibitions devoted to very narrow market segments, have received a good deal of discussion. It's worth asking whether we may be moving too far toward the opposite extreme.


One of the things that has kept NBPA going is that its annual conventions draw their participants from a very large population of operators who serve an unusually dense concentration of clients in the heart of the Eastern corridor, from Washington to Boston. This chain of great metropolitan areas, and their suburbs and "exurbs" that have seen so much commercial development over the past 30 years, has given rise to a widely varied group of operations expert in combining coffee service, vending, pure water delivery and catering in unusual ways. Many of these businesses are run by people who enjoy the Atlantic City scene, and who find NBPA's programming uniquely relevant.

Of course, attendance is a key to the survival of any industry convention, and some of the folding-in that's been going on in the recent past has been caused by an apparent lessening of interest in showgoing. Part of this surely is caused by the expense, which has increased substantially since the early '70s as the hospitality industry reinvented itself, and the inconvenience, which intensified two and a half years ago and shows no sign of getting better any time soon. But part seems to be a result of the information revolution. Why travel a long distance to ask someone about something that you can see on the Internet?

The reason to do it, beyond the extra dimension provided by personal contact, is serendipity. We may be able to learn a good deal about anything we want to understand better by effective Web searches and other online information techniques. But this approach does not do a very good job of suggesting things that we should understand better, but don't know we should. This is where a chance remark at an industry social event can lead to a fruitful conversation, or something you see by chance in an exhibit can open up a profitable new line of business.

There is a need for special-interest events. To be sure, everyone can live without them, but they make life more interesting and can hone an operator's competitive edge. There is a place for in-person conversation, including conversation among people of the same sex. We are not all alike; and vive la difference!