The National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2011 national convention and exhibition, OneShow, offered very welcome relief from the gloom and doom that many industry observers have been retailing for the past three or four years. All the exhibitors with whom we spoke were very pleased by the volume and quality of the traffic; there were a great many new operators attending their first or second show; there was a satisfying number of first-time exhibitors who see promise in vending and coffee service; and the new "Operator Perspectives" sessions were a very welcome addition to the educational program.
It is impossible to exaggerate the value of conventions and trade shows, especially to an entrepreneurial industry with relatively few barriers to entry, serving a very diverse and changeable market. While the "new media" provide remarkable tools for finding out about something you already know to exist, they are almost useless for discovering things of which you've never heard. A couple of hours spent walking through a trade show and looking closely at the displays is sure to turn up at least one entirely novel thing that offers a reasonable chance of proving useful and profitable.
Similarly, while we have astonishing resources for obtaining additional information (of varying quality) about subjects that interest us, the mechanisms that deploy those resources can do very little to present and discuss subjects with which we are wholly unfamiliar. A well-designed convention's education program not only deals with what former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld called "known unknowns," but also the often more important unknown ones. We always have liked seminars that teach us things we never even thought of.
In an industry's early days, educational programming generally is conducted by pioneers willing to describe the problems they have encountered and to share the solutions they've found. We remember the NAMA conventions of the late 1960s and National Coffee Service Association events of the mid-1970s for business sessions of this kind: how to organize a parts department or control access to keys, how to deal with accounts receivable or refurbish older brewers brought back in from the field.
As industries mature, many convention-goers have gotten their education, and their interests become more general. Convention programming is adjusted to address those tastes. But in an industry that undergoes successive cycles of new-business formation and expansion, consolidation and streamlining, there comes a time when many convention-goers have not heard those presentations -- and the problems they addressed have been replaced by new ones. This has happened at least three times since the late 1960s, with vending and OCS each confronting new challenges and evaluating new tools and approaches for dealing with them.
It is happening again, and it is for this reason that we found the OneShow Operator Perspectives initiative so valuable. The topics that were covered offer much to interest industry veterans as well as newcomers, and the format encouraged the comments and questions that often provide depth and enhance comprehension. We hope that this new program will become a regular feature of future conventions.
Of course, there were a few negatives too -- in the details, well-known as the residence of the devil. The directory booklet was too big to fit in a pocket (or even a small gadget bag). The badges were mismatched with the lanyards, very prone to slip off or to twist around so they could not be read. There was some complaint over the elimination of badgeholders, which some pocketless showgoers like to use as convenient carriers for business cards. And, as always, there were some who felt that the exhibit hours have been reduced too much, and others who feel that they still are too long. We are more inclined to agree with the first group, but we recognize an "equality of dissatisfaction" as the best anyone can hope for in matters like this.
The association also announced an ambitious plan to reinforce the positive perceptions of vending held by the rising generation of customers. Plans call for extensive opportunities for users of social media to "like" vending experiences and seek out more of them, as well as for a publicity campaign including a traveling exhibit of contemporary machines. We long have mourned the loss of the "vending weeks" that the larger state associations used to conduct, and we hope that renewed exposure to vending equipment will build awareness of just how sophisticated it really is.
Most importantly, we hope and expect that these events will help overcome the legacy of an era of large manufacturing workplaces. The industry developed an institutional belief that patrons regard vending as an imposition by The Bosses and an inadequate replacement for a charming waitress, but better than nothing. If that belief ever was prevalent, it has not been widespread for three decades. It is high time that operators listen to what today's patrons are saying, and NAMA's Industry Growth Strategy can help them tune in.