Contributing Editor Molly Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based in Highland Park, Ill.
How do you make sure an event that’s always held at the same time in the same place stays fresh? The National Restaurant Association mixes things up to keep its nearly century-old trade show from getting stale.
It was a familiar scene at Chicago’s McCormick Place this past May, when more than 61,000 registrants from all 50 states and more than 100 countries gathered for the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant HotelMotel Show and the International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event, a concurrent show for beverage alcohol buyers. That’s because NRA’s 93-year-old annual trade show - the restaurant industry’s premier showcase for products, equipment, and trends, and the biggest single meeting for restaurant, food-service, and lodging professionals in the United States - has called Chicago home for the past 63 consecutive years. When you layer on top of that the fact that it’s been held during the same week for the past 31 years, you get why one longtime exhibitor calls the show “my ‘Groundhog Day’” - a reference to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray’s character is destined to live the same day over and over.
Planning and hosting a show of this size is no easy feat for any organization, but keeping things fresh enough to prevent that déjà vu feeling - while preserving what’s familiar, tried, and true - is even more challenging. “It’s a fine line,” said Mary Pat Heftman, NRA’s executive vice president, convention, who heads a 25-person team that works year-round on the planning, production, and promotion of the show. “You have to be able to recognize what works and what needs to change.”
The NRA Show is one of the largest trade shows in the United States (currently ranked number 34 by the Trade Show News Network), “but a lot of the lessons can be applied to a show that’s only 100 square feet, [and has] 300 exhibitors and 12,000 attendees,” said John Patronski, executive vice president for industry development at Global Experience Specialists (GES), NRA’s longtime general services provider. “If you separate out the size and the specific industry, all show organizers go through a similar challenge: How do you reinvent a show and generate excitement?”
Convene walked the exhibit floor at the 2012 NRA Show, spoke with show veterans and first-timers, and conducted interviews with NRA staff members before and after the show to gain insight into how - and how well - the association handles that challenge.
The show that always is almost wasn't this year. In June 2011, it was announced that Chicago would host the NATO Summit the weekend of May 18, 2012 - the same weekend as the NRA Show. Recognizing the massive security and transportation headaches that would accompany the arrival of so many heads of state - not to mention the competition for prime hotels and restaurants - NRA executives began exploring the possibility of moving the show to a different location. “We performed a risk-reward analysis to see what space could fit our needs,” Heftman said. “Our industry really enjoys Chicago, but we knew they would want to experience it in the way they traditionally have, in terms of convenience and enjoyability.”
And so with that - and the incentive of a city-provided financial package that media sources estimated at $2 million - NRA announced its show would stay in Chicago, but move up by two weeks, to May 5–8. The association then unleashed a torrent of advertising and marketing communications to promote the new dates. The message was well received. Several weeks prior to the show, NRA announced that the 540,000-square-foot show floor - nearly six square miles of exhibit space - was completely sold out. Close to 2,000 companies, including 500 new exhibitors, had filled every available inch of McCormick Place and were ready for the show, new dates and all.
Making Its Case
Changing the show weekend for the first time in 30 years was a significant shake-up, but Heftman and her team had more up their sleeves, including a rebranding effort and a new marketing campaign. “We update our on-site look every three years, [but] this was much more than a redesign,” Heftman said. “We developed an entirely new campaign concept and messaging, as well as a look and feel.”
The new look was intended to energize attendees after a couple of hard years. According to consumer market research company NPD Group, the number of U.S. restaurant visits fell by more than two billion between 2008 and 2011. But now, after a slight rebound last year and a positive - if not ebullient - forecast for 2012, the industry is feeling a bit more sure-footed. According to NRA’s own 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast, total restaurant sales are expected to reach a record high of $632 billion this year, a 3.5-percent increase over 2011. And according to NRA’s April 2012 performance index, restaurant operators’ outlook for capital spending is at its highest level since summer 2007.
“There’s a pent-up demand and excitement now to get back out and see what’s new,” Heftman said. “People are ready to not just stay the course, but step it up. They’re making commitments to capital spending, and they’re excited to get together again.”
NRA wanted to be ready for that. So, starting more than a year out, the association began exploring new branding and marketing paths for the show. Focus groups helped organizers capture attendees’ perceptions of the show, and they used that insight to develop a new theme and creative concept for 2012: “Only here.” “The ‘Only here’ campaign is based on the idea that there are certain events, interactions, and learnings - both planned and serendipitous - that happen directly as a result of 61,000-plus industry professionals coming together in a single location,” Heftman said. “The only way to experience these things or to take part in them is to attend NRA Show."
The new campaign seems to have tapped the right emotion: Post-show numbers showed overall attendance was up 6% from 2011.
As part of the 2012 makeover, the show floor was redesigned, resulting in 5 percent more square footage than in 2011. It was the first redesign for the show’s South Hall since 1997 and the first for the North Hall since the late ‘80s. “Not only was the attendee experiencing a new vibe as they entered McCormick Place,” Patronski said, “but they saw different companies in different locations, some with new exhibit designs and layouts, creating a new and different feel for the show. If the floor had been exactly the same as past years, it would have been just the same old floor, and I think it would have been a letdown.”
The floor redesign was both creative and strategic, Heftman said. For example, event spaces and stages were relocated to less-trafficked areas to direct more attendees to sections that didn't get as much foot traffic in the past. “It’s all about driving value for exhibitors,” Heftman said, “and increasing the experience for attendees.”
The new design also featured an expanded number of “pavilions,” which grouped like exhibitors together. The pavilions provided a centralized showcase for niche products and solutions, and brought a sense of cohesion to the mammoth floor. In the Organic and Natural Pavilion, companies promoted and provided samples of a variety of vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, organic, and fair-trade products. And the new Healthier Kids Fare Pavilion featured companies