Contributing Editor Molly Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based in Highland Park, Ill.
that can help restaurants incorporate more healthy choices into children’s meals.
“The show size was bigger this year, but the buzz on the floor was very exciting and much more positive than prior years,” Patronski said. “The show looked alive and was vibrant with new ideas and new products.”
Tech Is King
In the North Hall, the bustle of the Technology Pavilion reflected the growing influence of social-media, digital, and mobile technology on the industry. Vendors of digital scheduling systems, point-of-sale systems, digital menus, and e-everything vied for attendees’ attention in the crowded aisles. PeopleMatter, a Charleston, S.C.-based company that sells a paperless human-resources platform, commanded on of the larger booths and featured a swarm of employees in t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Paper is so 2011.”
OpenTable, the San Francisco-based online and mobile reservation-management system, is an NRA Show veteran (by technology-company standards), having exhibited for the past seven years. Brandon Bidlack, OpenTable senior director of restaurant marketing, said he’s seen the Technology Pavilion evolve in both size and focus. “In the early days, you’d see companies like ours alongside a new kind of toilet. We were all lumped together and it was a little bit all over the place,” he said. “Now, the whole industry is taking a more sophisticated approach to technology, and you see a lot more focus on it at the show.”
In addition to the increased number of exhibitors, 11 of the show’s 70 education sessions focused on technology. Because the Technology Pavilion this year included education space, as well as tables and chairs for networking, sessions were held right on the show floor - integrating education into the show experience more effectively. Patronski said: “It’s all about engaging the attendee.”
Vendors used technology to engage attendees in both fun and strategic ways. At the massive, 3,500-square-foot booth for Hobart–An ITW Food Equipment Group Company, mounted iPads and a new show app allowed customers to print spec sheets on demand. “It’s putting information right at the customers’ fingertips,” explained Joyce Grooms, Hobart’s manager of trade marketing. “It’s all customized, so they print only what they need, and we provide a more personalized experience.”
At Louisiana-based Community Coffee’s booth, employees offered attendees an iPad-based coffee and tea personality quiz. “This is our first show,” said Blair Broussard, marketing and communications manager, “and we thought it was a fun way to introduce ourselves to people.”
Like It, Tweet It, Share It
NRA itself relied heavily on technology to interact with attendees. A show app eliminated the need for bulky program guides and maps; and for the second year, the show ran NRA Show Daily Deals, similar to the online daily deals offered by Groupon and Living Social. For several days leading up to the show and every day during the show, registrants received an email promoting a deeply discounted Daily Deal on equipment, services, or technology offered by an exhibitor. Each Daily Deal represented a savings of 50 percent or greater; by the end of the show, 225 had been purchased.
Social media is an increasingly powerful influence within the restaurant industry - ask any restaurateur about the power of Yelp - and if attendees didn't already get that, NRA made it hard to miss: A large monitor in the South Hall displayed a live Twitter feed of all show chatter (see it at #NRAShow). NRA staff was also busy posting on Facebook and the NRA Show blog, and tweeting throughout the event.
But no matter how many unique experiences, social events, and networking opportunities a show offers, it won’t get people to come back the following year if it doesn't translate into sales. Against the quiet back wall of the North Hall - where it seemed attendees only ended up if they missed the turn into the Technology Pavilion - Chauncey Blaisdell manned the small JobApp Network booth. “We were late registering,” he said, gesturing to his less-than-ideal location, “but you have to start somewhere.” Blaisdell said the NRA Show had provided some good networking opportunities for first-time exhibitors, but he wasn't yet sure if the event was a good fit, or if JobApp Network might be better suited to smaller, more focused shows, such as a franchise expo.
Back in the South Hall, in a prime, high-visibility location, sat the Carbon’s Golden Malted food truck, serving fresh, hot Belgian waffles. This year marked the company’s 54th consecutive NRA Show; coming back each year is a bit like old home week, said Tim Howard, customer service and distribution manager for the pancake- and waffle-mix company. “We have a long history with the show,” he said. “This is how we grew our company in the early days.”
Not only does the show give Carbon’s an opportunity to thank its longtime customers in person, Howard said, but it’s also the best way to generate new leads. By day two, he had already reserved the same booth space for the 2013 NRA Show. “How much easier could it be than to come to the NRA Show, where people from all over the world come looking for ideas?” Howard asked. “It’s a lot easier than going out and knocking on doors. And that’s why it’s so important to us.”
Keeping It Fresh
Changes the National Restaurant Association made to the 2012 NRA Show included:
- New creative concept and marketing campaign - “Only here.”
- Redesigned exhibit floor.
- New specialty pavilions for like exhibitors and niche products.
- New Operator Innovator Awards, with winners announced at an after-show party.
- New evening events - both large parties and exclusive, small-group dining experiences.
- More celebrity-chef appearances and book signings
- Expanded International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event, with total number of exhibiting companies up 40 percent over 2011.
- Increased social-media presence and tools.
Creating a Buzz
Even though the NRA Show is the restaurant industry’s biggest trade show, you can’t assume people will come for that reason alone, said NRA’s Mary Pat Heftman. “We believe in a strategy that provides as many reasons as possible to say, ‘Yes, I will register, book a flight and hotel, spend time [away from] my business.’”
To that end, NRA added more networking events this year, plus new social events and after-show parties. “It’s all in the combination of providing the attendees and exhibitors with the very best options for networking, seeing/sampling products, entertainment, and a destination that will trigger them to not only attend, but stay engaged with the brand,” Heftman said.
A walk through the show floor at McCormick Place established that exhibitors weren't passively displaying their products or services, but were looking for similar levels of engagement. “The key is to not just show up, but do something to create a buzz,” said Scott DeShetler, director of marketing for Ice-O-Matic, whose strategy for the 2012 show was a guerrilla marketing campaign that targeted show-goers at hotels and shuttle stops. Marketing staff carried placards and passed out pins with political-style slogans, such as “Demand More Ice for the Price” and “Just Say Yes to Productivity.”
The guerrilla campaign was the kick-off to the company’s new advertising campaign, “The Ice Cold Truth,” and Ice-O-Matic invited attendees