ATTENDANCE UP 56% AS GMDC PAYS EXPENSES

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The General Merchandise Distributors Council, Colorado Springs, Colo., rolled the dice and it paid off big time.Last fall, GMDC decided on a unique strategy to boost attendance and involvement in its marketing conferences: The trade association would pay the travel and lodging expenses for the retailer and wholesaler attendees. Last week, at the group's GM Marketing Conference

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The General Merchandise Distributors Council, Colorado Springs, Colo., rolled the dice and it paid off big time.

Last fall, GMDC decided on a unique strategy to boost attendance and involvement in its marketing conferences: The trade association would pay the travel and lodging expenses for the retailer and wholesaler attendees. Last week, at the group's GM Marketing Conference here, there were 56% more retail and wholesale executives in attendance than last year, up from 152 to 237, said Dave McConnell, GMDC's president and chief executive officer. In a time of shrinking show attendance, this was a success by any measure, he said.

The move resulted in a higher critical mass of buyers, which made the attending suppliers happy and contributed to a generally enthusiastic environment. "It's probably the highest energy level I've seen at one of our conferences in the last several years," McConnell said.

The number of retailer and wholesaler companies was up 37%, from 73 to 100, while the number of suppliers was up very slightly to 361 companies and 726 people, which GMDC considered a success in a consolidating industry, he said. Total attendance was up 9%, from 881 in 2001 to 963 this year. And GMDC accomplished this while staying on budget, he noted.

As a result of the new policy on retailers' expenses, executives at Save Mart Supermarkets recommended to top management that the Modesto, Calif., chain join GMDC, said Tony Pooler, director of health and beauty care/general merchandise.

"It made a big difference because it was less costly to my company for me to come here," said Kevin Nicholas, general merchandise/floral buyer-supervisor, Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn. He probably would have attended anyway, but GMDC paying the expenses made the decision easy.

"Everybody has tight budgets, so it is going to make a difference," said Jerry Pramick, director, general merchandise/health and beauty care at the Columbus, Ohio-based general merchandise division of Penn Traffic, Syracuse, New York.

At the GMDC conferences, retailers sit at tables and suppliers take turns visiting them for eight- and 16-minute appointments. "It's a fantastic format. Very productive. Very well-organized. Very user-friendly," said Steve Urgo, general merchandise buyer/category manager, Save Mart.

Linda Schroeder, director of general merchandise and health and beauty care, Felpausch Food Centers, Hastings, Mich., has come for the last five years, but she said the increased attendance helped create a more positive environment at the conference. "This is one of my most successful shows," she said.

For some retailers and wholesalers who would have come anyway, the expenses-paid policy made it possible for them to bring more people and schedule more appointments, noted Lee Armbuster, vice president, wholesale general merchandise/health and beauty care with the Chanhassen, Minn.-based Corporate General Merchandise division of Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn. The new policy "opens the door for those retailers who may have been constrained by travel costs in the past," he said.

"It's very upbeat," said Charles Yahn, vice president, Associated Wholesalers, York, Pa. "I'm sensing more of positive attitude on the vendors' side."