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Showtimes a-Changin’


Like the supermarket business itself, its base of indigenous industry trade shows toils mightily to remain engaging, fresh and relevant — a reality made all the more clear as I pen this commentary at the close of peak supermarket show season, which wrapped in mid-June with FMI Connect and its co-located show partners, United Fresh 2014, PMMI-PACK Expo, InterBev Beverage 2014 and the U.S. Food Showcase.

Having divided the bulk of my time between FMI’s and United Fresh’s show floors, educational sessions and social events, I found the redesigned industry gathering to be a work in progress that’s off to a promising start. With the first of a three-year commitment, including with United Fresh, at Chicago’s McCormick’s Place under its belt, the industry’s anchor trade association most assuredly has plenty to build on during its journey to shed its expo-heavy “FMI Show” status and offer a retooled experience for a new generation.

With some 11,000 attendees from 70 countries, FMI’s grand return to the Second City after a seven-year hiatus (which was preceded by a 24-year Chicago stint that spanned from the early 1980s to 2007) led with an integrated exposition, educational and networking format, and represents a solid first step to revamp an event that’s as relevant for today’s audience as its predecessor was decades earlier.

To be sure, for many veteran grocery industry brethren — present company included — the annual pilgrimage to Chicago in early May for the once-larger-than-life FMI Show sparks vivid memories of a bygone era when national trade shows were a major force in the buyer-seller equation. Revolving around blockbuster booths, stilt-walkers, Elsie the Cow and Purina puppies; appearances by legendary Chicago athletes, national celebrities and industry pioneers; and a plethora of genuinely new products, the erstwhile FMI Show once was to the grocery industry what New York’s Fashion Week is to designers. Beyond the fantastic food products and related sideshow festivities, the industry’s essential springtime jamboree also brimmed with senior-level executives from all walks of the industry, many of whom, after making their rounds on the show floor, were known to pause for a cold beverage with fellow show-goers.

But times have decidedly changed.

While FMI — and all trade shows for that matter — still provides premium face-to-face brand-building and relationship engagement opportunities with clients, customers, prospects and colleagues, profound shifts with flattened organizational structures, consolidated buying teams and sales forces, and more pressing demands on the time and resources of companies and individuals across the food chain have made trade show ROI increasingly difficult to justify for many.

The technology-rich world in which we live is yet another factor competing for time-impoverished would-be participants, as is the mandate to reduce expenses through tighter travel budgets that persists at many of today’s leaner organizations, whose teams have little choice but to limit conference attendance to only the most valuable and relevant ones — namely regional selling shows and increasingly influential highly tailored events.

While it seeks to rework the magic and move away from the tall shadow of its former show to something drastically different, FMI’s aspirations to make its largest annual confab a must-attend event in the years to come are both commendable and advantageous for all parties involved. But the messaging, in both word and deed, must not only convey, but also ultimately deliver on, the promise of a rewarding, one-stop-shop experience that imparts reciprocal value for individual attendees, companies and the industry as a whole.

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