ADJUSTMENT TIME

WASHINGTON -- After several years of occasionally drastic changes at its annual trade shows, the Food Marketing Institute here said its focus in 1998 will be to make mostly smaller adjustments to fine-tune each event.FMI executives told SN the annual convention in May will attempt to make the technology exhibit area more compelling; the MarkeTechnics show in February will attempt to make operations

WASHINGTON -- After several years of occasionally drastic changes at its annual trade shows, the Food Marketing Institute here said its focus in 1998 will be to make mostly smaller adjustments to fine-tune each event.

FMI executives told SN the annual convention in May will attempt to make the technology exhibit area more compelling; the MarkeTechnics show in February will attempt to make operations more comprehensible to technology people; and the MealSolutions show in October will continue its ongoing evolution.

According to Brian Tully, senior vice president for conventions, the FMI's annual convention in Chicago May 3 to 6 will exhibit few changes from the 1997 show -- except in the equipment/technology exhibit area, which he said the FMI hopes to enliven.

While technology and equipment vendors did "a reasonable amount of business," Tully said, most of it came after rather than during the event -- which he said FMI believes resulted from the first-time-ever separation of technology and consumer goods at last spring's show.

"At prior conventions, equipment vendors benefited from their proximity to the professional marketers for consumer products, and setting them apart left some companies with little excitement in their exhibits," Tully explained. "We hope to change that at the 1998 convention by trying to find new ways to wow attendees."

To encourage greater attendance in McCormick Place's North Building, where the technology exhibits are located, the FMI plans to open that area a little earlier, "to enable traffic to begin at that end of the show," Tully said. The floor exhibits in the technology/equipment area will open at 9:30 a.m., one hour earlier than in the consumer goods area, "because many of the workshops in the morning may not be pertinent to those exhibitors and their customers," Tully explained.

Closing those exhibits at 4 p.m., an hour earlier than the rest of the show, should help facilitate departures at the end of each day, he added.

The FMI will also offer a food court near the North Hall technology exhibits, featuring samples from food vendors who are also displaying in the South Hall, "so people don't have to leave that area if they want to get something to eat," Tully said.

According to Michael Sansolo, senior vice president of education, industry relations and research, "We implemented quite a bit of change at our 1997 convention, and while we're pleased with the results, we intend to give things a chance to settle in, to see if the utilization is better in the second year."

One new wrinkle that worked particularly well, Sansolo noted, was the concept of Idea Exchange breakfasts -- roundtable discussions on a variety of topics -- which attracted 700 to 800 people a day on the two mornings they were held. "And when we did the same thing at our MealSolutions show, we had a similar turnout, so we will incorporate them again in Chicago," Sansolo said.

The FMI is also trying to recruit more minority suppliers to exhibit at the May convention "to give our members more opportunity to get products on the shelves from companies they may not otherwise see," Tully said.

The sixth annual MarkeTechnics show, scheduled for Feb. 22 to 24 in Los Angeles, will continue to concentrate on creating information technology strategies that can help operations people solve real business problems, Sansolo said.

In a new twist, MarkeTechnics will offer a Demo Net area on the trade show floor "that will create and facilitate a technical environment the people attending will feel comfortable with," Tully said.

Computer terminals in the Demo Net area will enable people to keep in touch with their offices, he pointed out, and the FMI will have people available to help educate attendees on practical applications of technology, he added.

According to Sansolo, "When we talk with information systems professionals, there's a growing recognition that they have not integrated themselves into the mainstream of their companies, and it's the same for operational people dealing with information systems.

"FMI believes the time to break down those walls is now.

"There's considerable pressure for technology people to understand more of the basics of the business, and our purpose at MarkeTechnics will be to help them complete their education." In another new development, the FMI's Loss Prevention Conference has been scheduled to coincide with MarkeTechnics, "because obviously there's a lot of need for security professionals to have an opportunity to meet with vendors of high-tech equipment," Tully said.

According to Sansolo, MarkeTechnic's closing session will include a discussion among top-ranking executives on what the industry might look like in 2010. Tentative panelists will include Hugh Farrington, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine; Al Carey, president and chief operating officer of Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas; and Fully Clingman, president and CEO of H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio. FMI's third annual MealSolutions show -- scheduled for Tampa, Fla., Oct. 4 to 6 -- continues to offer the most changes year to year, Sansolo pointed out, "because that part of the business is still in its infancy and still groping around looking for answers.

"Right now, there are still more questions than answers -- and I'm not sure we even know all the right questions to ask."

At the 1997 MealSolutions show, FMI tried to move from a "gee-whiz" attitude about ready-to-eat food to suggestions on how to implement meal solutions, Sansolo said -- a goal that should continue for at least the next two years "because there's still so much to learn."

Although the program for the 1998 convention has not yet been set, he said FMI will continue to look at consumer behavior, changes and attitudes about ready-to-eat food at the supermarket and to focus on how retailers and suppliers can develop partnerships.

The FMI will also try to attract attendees from other areas of the business, Sansolo added, including food-service companies that have product and brand identity, or packaged goods companies.

The 1997 MealSolutions show was held in conjunction with FMI's Consumer Affairs Conference, "but we have no feedback yet to determine if that will be repeated," Sansolo said.

The invitation-only Midwinter Executive Conference -- scheduled for Jan. 18 to 20 in Boca Raton, Fla. -- will focus on the impact on business of long-term cultural, technological and sociological changes, and will be highlighted by an address on business and politics around the world by John Major, former prime minister of Great Britain.

To shorten the conference, FMI will eliminate the Wednesday session, substituting a series of business-related sessions on Monday and Tuesday afternoons in addition to the usual recreational options, Sansolo said.