ARLINGTON, Va. — After a year off, the Food Marketing Institute here is betting that the industry will return to Las Vegas for the sophomore year of its exhibitor conference and educational forum, known as the 2010 FMI Show.
Early interest in the event, which was held for the first time in Las Vegas in 2008 as part of a transition to an alternating-year format, has been encouraging, Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI, told SN.
“Reaction to the last one was strong, we think the reaction to this one is strong as well,” she said. “Particularly as we begin to come out of a recessionary time, we are very pleased to bring the industry together and talk about the ways we have survived what we have been through recently and the opportunities ahead of us in Las Vegas.”
Early registration numbers for attendees have been “strong,” she said, noting that FMI anticipates a considerable amount of on-site registration as well.
Although many large supplier companies have been scaling back their presence at the event over the last several years, Sarasin described advance booth registration as being “very strong” as well.
“We are getting very close to the magic numbers we had hoped for, so I think we will be fine in that arena,” she told SN. She said FMI expects more than 400 vendors for the event.
This year's show, themed “Customer Connect,” seeks to tie the educational sessions and workshops together with the exhibit floor with a slightly modified format. (Click here for a full schedule.)
The educational tracks for this year's conference will be divided into several tracks, including two related to the “Future Connect” leadership-development theme that originated in the inaugural Future Connect conference a year ago in Dallas. That conference replaced the traditional FMI Show in 2009, although it was postponed until October because of concerns over the H1N1 virus.
“One of the things we are very excited about is the leadership development area,” Sarasin said. “Last year was the first for Future Connect, and one of the things I was concerned about is that we don't get into Future Connect with a ‘now we're in it, now we're not’ kind of approach.
“What we want to do is incorporate into this year's show event a mini-Future Connect, so that those who began that conversation in 2009, will be able to continue it in 2010 and prepare to continue in 2011. So I am very excited to continue offering this opportunity to develop the industry leaders of the future.”
The other educational tracks at this year's FMI Show are Consumer Trends: The Next Evolution of Shopper Behavior; Technology-Enabled Business Solutions; Sustainability; Private Brands; and Health and Wellness.
The Health and Wellness educational track is also part of the inaugural FMI Supermarket Health and Wellness Conference, which also has its own separate slate of events.
In addition to the themed educational tracks, other changes this year include a Customer Innovation Zone, where suppliers will present research and category solutions geared toward helping retailers better connect with consumers.
“This gives the suppliers an opportunity to really have face time with others in the industry,” Sarasin explained.
Other educational tracks will also tie into events on the show floor — tours of technology offerings, for example.
In order to look for ways to make the FMI Show more relevant to the industry, one of the first things Sarasin did when she joined FMI more than year ago was to form a steering committee specifically for planning the event. The group has been meeting regularly to plan this year's conference with input from a broad range of industry perspectives, including retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and academia.
“When I got here I asked what kind of committees we had for planning the show, and in fact we did not have any,” Sarasin explained. “It was very staff driven, which was fine — it worked for FMI in the past, but it really struck me that going forward if we were going to meet the needs of the industry, we needed to have engagement with the industry in order for us to understand what their needs are.”
The theme of this year's conference, Customer Connect, was one of the first ideas that came out of the initial meeting of the steering committee. The concept of offering six educational tracks also came from the committee.
“Their input has been pervasive and very insightful in terms of what we are doing in Las Vegas,” Sarasin said.
When the decision was first made in 2006 to switch to an alternate-year conference, some industry observers were skeptical, noting that it can be much more difficult to garner vendor support and attendance when a show is staged every two years.
But Sarasin pointed out that the longer time frame has also given FMI more time to plan this year's event and to recruit vendors and attendees. Recruiting for the conference has also advanced, with a greater focus on electronic communications, including more use of email and the Internet.
“One of the things I have been trying to do is to make greater use of technology in promoting the show,” she said. “We have tried very hard to do that, and to rely less on actual snail mail and the other pieces that get sent out.”
The tweaks to this year's FMI Show are only part of the changes that are under way at the association, however.
In January the FMI board of directors unanimously supported a three-year strategic plan that FMI had developed in the preceding six months.
“We are very excited about that, because it makes it easier for me as the CEO to help me understand exactly what my charge and my mission is,” Sarasin told SN. “It also helps me better work with my staff so that they understand what their role is in helping us achieve those objectives, so we are all working together to get to the same place.”
One of Sarasin's objectives has been to work more collaboratively with other industry trade groups, including Grocery Manufacturers Association. In 2009 the two groups signed an alliance agreement for the purpose of exploring opportunities to work together and avoid duplication.
“We've done a lot already, and I think there remain tremendous opportunities to expand what we're doing in this area,” Sarasin said.
“We have had a number of very good successes in this arena,” she added, citing the recent co-sponsorship with GMA of the Supply Chain Conference, in which both groups shared full responsibility for planning and also the revenues and costs.
“That was wildly successful — much more successful than either event had been as a standalone conference in the past,” Sarasin said. “We are now continuing in that fashion with the sustainability conference that will be held in December this year, so we have a lot on tap in terms of opportunities for working together with them as well.
“We think there will be other opportunities for this type of activity that we look forward to announcing in the future, and we continue to look for more opportunities as well.”
The joint GMA-FMI sustainability conference is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C.
With the passage of health care reform legislation this year, FMI is also looking at a busy legislative and regulatory agenda in the weeks and months ahead, Sarasin said.
Monitoring the implementation of health care reform could be a “lifelong process,” she explained, as regulators determine how the massive health care reform bill is implemented and enforced.
“Now the real work begins,” Sarasin told SN, “because everything that congress and the president worked out, now has to actually be implemented through regulation.
“Through the legislative process we had some victories and some frustrations, and now, as the regulatory process begins, it is going to be very important for FMI to remain engaged in the conversation to make sure that the things we were able to achieve on behalf of our members are maintained.”
There might also be opportunities for clarification of some issues that the industry is concerned about, such as the whole issue involving flexible spending accounts. Those accounts, known as FSAs, allow workers to use pre-tax earnings to pay for certain over-the-counter medical items.
“Our members went through quite a bit of labor and expense to make sure that only the items that were actually eligible could be purchased with these accounts in grocery stores,” Sarasin explained. “Now with this new legislation, it appears to prevent the purchase of any drug without a prescription using these benefits.
“And the legislation is silent on whether things like eyeglasses, contact lens solution, and ace bandages can be purchased using these flexible spending accounts. These are the types of things that have to be clarified, and FMI will be in there to make sure the interest of our industry is maintained, particularly after our members went through so much energy and expense to inventory these things at the outset.”
In addition, as of last week FMI was continuing to monitor food-safety legislation in the form of the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, the Senate version of a house bill that passed last year seeking to strengthen the FDA.
Credit- and debit-card interchange fees also remain on the agenda in various forms, both in various states around the country, and possibly as part of the banking regulatory reform package that is expected to be produced in the coming weeks.
In addition to the bill recently passed by the Vermont state senate that would prohibit certain “anticompetitive practices” by credit-card companies — which was driven by the Vermont Grocers Association with the support of FMI — other states have discussed prohibiting retailers from adding a surcharge on debit-card purchases.
“Of course these fees are not added by the merchants — these are something the banks are doing, so there's some disingenuousness about the way these things are being handled,” Sarasin pointed out. “So we are working very closely with our state associations to make sure we are addressing these issues at the state level, and at the federal level as well.”