National Expo At Navy Pier: A Bust It Was Not!

Sept. 29, 2009

The National Expo took place at Chicago's picturesque Navy Pier under some of the lowest expectations ever for a National Expo, but a bust it was not.

Attendance records weren't set, but the low expectations many held going into the show gave way to pleasant surprise soon after arriving at Navy Pier.

Expectations were low mainly due to the economy. Many operators felt uncomfortable going to a convention during a year they had given pink slips to some employees.

Some exhibitors, anticipating low attendance, took smaller booths. Some also felt the fact that another expo will be held within the year in Chicago made this falls expo less important.

The industry is undergoing some severe growing pains, and conventions are naturally reflecting this.

But the more insightful exhibitors recognize that in difficult economic times, trade shows draw the cream of the crop among the attendee base, and last weeks expo was true to form.

An industry experiencing change has more need for conventions than in stable periods. Everyone looking for the latest innovations in product, equipment and technology found plenty to see at Navy Pier last week.

During the government affairs symposium Wednesday morning, state association officers got an update on legislative initiatives that are going to affect most operators, particularly nutrition labeling. Several bills in Congress are proposing language dealing with calorie disclosure in vending machines. Nutrition labeling is getting more, not less, attention within the context of the national health care debate. The nations obesity problem has taken on new importance with the change in federal administration.

Fortunately, NAMA has an excellent tool in its Fit Pick program. Jackie Clark, NAMA's director of public relations, reviewed the Fit Pick program during the government affairs symposium and noted that several government agencies, school systems and businesses have accepted its nutrition standards.

Some legislative observers believe that federal nutrition standards for vending are on the way, which means big changes. NAMA believes at least 85 percent of vending operators will be required to disclose calorie information. But don't cringe: while this promises new headaches, it also gives the industry an opportunity to become more relevant to consumers.

What other retail channel has the means to offer single-serve products at so many distribution outlets as vending? With today's push-button technology, vending machines can display individual nutrition labels for all products in the machine.

The trade show included retrofit kits that support video display screens and nutrition databases.

Think about it: What other channel besides vending can offer a variety of food choices and allow the consumer to review nutrition content of each individual offering right at the point of sale? The technology is here, and attentive observers at Navy Pier saw it on the show floor!

Many observers have been saying that technology holds great promise for the vending industry to become more relevant to consumers. The legislative climate and technologies ability to address it could give our tired industry new meaning.

One seminar reviewed the NAMA vending data interchange (VDI) standards, the first industry wide standard enabling data sharing among competing providers of software products. These standards are designed to allow operators more freedom to introduce technology products, such as cashless vending and remote machine monitoring, based on the unique circumstances of their individual businesses.

A key goal of these standards is interoperability of different software and hardware products. A vending operator who uses provider As accounting software will be able to use provider Bs cashless card reader.

The new standards aren't a silver bullet. Adopting technology requires extensive planning, education, staff training, some trial and error, and financial investment. But the new standards mark a turning point in provider cooperation.

The NAMA technology leadership committee hopes that these standards will lead to accelerated adoption of vending technologies.

There were not one, but two pick to light warehouse picking systems on the show floor that promise significant productivity improvement in the warehouse. Such a system alerts the product pickers in the warehouse how much of each product to pick from a moving row of containers. The systems reduce picking errors and improve picking speed.

On the product side, there was no shortage of excellent offerings in all product segments: salty snacks, candy, sandwiches, entrees, cold beverages, hot beverages, milk and ice cream.

In the salty snack segment, there were brand extensions, new flavors, better for you offerings and some larger size packs, all to offer enhanced value.

In chocolate candy, there were some great tasting new products with colorful packaging.

In the food segment, which has taken a big beating in the recession, there were some outstanding new sandwiches and entrees.

There were as many new things to see in Chicago last week as at any expo. Those who took the time to attend were not disappointed.