k's Food Marketing Institute convention and exposition in Chicago -- the industry's premiere event -- showcased the industry's energy and creativity to its greatest advantage, but at some cost of diminished strength and shoe leather to everyone attending.
All that's as it usually is, but there were some important differences in this year's edition of the show. Specifically, this year's show occupied newly constructed facilities at McCormick Place, the effect of which was to put the show on a single level and into two adjoining buildings separated by a common lobby. That represents the most significant show-format change since the FMI show was divided between two buildings several years ago.
And, for the first time, there was a strong element of categorization in the show: The North building was given over to food products; the South building to equipment and services. This year's FMI show arrangement roughly followed that used by the far-larger European food shows. In all instances, the idea is to bring some rationalization to a show that's simply too large to cover aisle by aisle.
So, how did all the changes work for FMI this year? Here's a quick look based on my own observations and my chats with numerous attendees and FMI executives.
Getting there: Transportation options centered on the main lobby. The result was that shuttle buses to hotels and to parking lots, along with taxi access, were more readily available from any point on the show floors. Lines seemed shorter too. This was a winner.
Being there: The two adjacent halls engendered the impression of a space almost too large to manage. In fact, the gross space was nearly 1.5 million square feet, several hundred square feet larger than usual (although perhaps a little smaller in terms of space actually occupied by booths).
There was one new feature intended to defeat the challenge of space, the hop-on trams that plied the hall. Those vehicles offered some relief to the foot-weary, but tram drivers were slowed by walkers to the extent that walking was usually faster than riding. Maybe in the future, attendees will get used to the idea that the carpeted area marked like a roadway -- the trams' path -- should be left open for the trams.
Going with the flow: The biggest bone of contention was the disparity in traffic flow occasioned by the show's categorization. At any given moment, the amount of traffic on the food side was vastly greater than that on the equipment side. The unequal-traffic effect increased as the show went on.
The degree to which the traffic imbalance was a problem depended on perspective: The show's primary constituency -- retailers and wholesalers -- found the arrangement enhanced the workability of the show, but many vendors on the equipment side were less than enchanted with the relative lack of passersby. A sub-hall on the end of the equipment side was particularly desolate.
Many equipment vendors complained that the walk to where nourishment was available was too long and time-consuming, and they correctly observed that the lack of interspersed food giveaways was what reduced traffic.
But such observations missed the point of a business show, which is that opportunistic traffic is icing on the cake of scheduling: Equipment vendors who set up appointments in advance of the show were happy since they had solved any problem location might pose. Indeed, those who did their homework found the absence of tire-kickers to be all to the good.
Future of the show: Will the traffic-balance situation cause reconsideration of the show's categorization for next year? Certainly that question will be a great topic of discussion at FMI, and is one I brought up with Tim Hammonds, FMI's president and chief executive officer, during the show.
His observations: "It may be too early to tell, but so far there's good feedback about the show from retailers and wholesalers. Many of them bring teams, and a part of that team is able to work the equipment side without being slowed by people in the aisles looking for pizza and beer. Exhibitor feedback is that a good visitor quality is coming in; equipment exhibitors are seeing people who are really interested in equipment.
"The initial reading is that this is successful, and that we'll want to do it again. Also, we're grateful to exhibitors for their willingness to try this out."