WASHINGTON -- Those long walks down long hallways to get from point A to point B at the annual Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago are history, now that "A" and "B" will both be in the same building, on the same floor, at this year's show."And we think that's great for the exhibitors and attendees, because it will create a lot of excitement and a whole new look for the convention," Tim

WASHINGTON -- Those long walks down long hallways to get from point A to point B at the annual Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago are history, now that "A" and "B" will both be in the same building, on the same floor, at this year's show.

"And we think that's great for the exhibitors and attendees, because it will create a lot of excitement and a whole new look for the convention," Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI, told SN in a preconvention interview.

The convention is to be held May 4 to 7 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

With the completion of a major addition to the North building at McCormick Place, all exhibits will be on the same floor -- technology, equipment, store fixtures and services in the North Hall, where they were located at last year's trade show, and consumer products in the new South Hall -- with trams to transport foot-weary convention-goers across the 1-million-square-foot exhibit floor.

Although there are no precise lines of delineation for all exhibitors, the new arrangement "will make it easier for people to zero in on what they're looking for," Hammonds said. "And for manufacturers, the new setup is giving them the opportunity to rethink the way they approach their booths and redesign them accordingly."

At 1 million square feet the convention floor is about the same size it has been on two, and occasionally three, levels in the past, Hammonds pointed out. "We haven't tried to expand the size -- it's already big enough -- but we have built in more rest areas for people to sit down and relax, with a wide central boulevard for the trams, similar to what you see at many airports."

According to Hammonds, other new wrinkles at this year's FMI convention will include the following:

Fewer workshops -- with each workshop scheduled in larger rooms to prevent overflow crowds -- which will emphasize more strategic topics than in the past.

Rooms for lease to allow manufacturers to host business reviews for some of their customers.

Informal idea-exchange breakfasts. Rather than hosting 20 workshops per day (half at 8:30 a.m., half at 10:15 a.m.), FMI is reducing the number of workshops at the Monday and Tuesday sessions to 14, including some repeats during the later morning hours.

Those sessions will be held in larger rooms that can accommodate more people, and they will be oriented more toward strategic topics, like category management, meal solutions and seasonal selling, instead of the more basic subjects of the past, Hammonds pointed out. "One problem we had last year was working with the capacity of the rooms available for workshops," he explained. "Some of those rooms were smaller, with a capacity of only 150 to 200 people, and we ended up offering more workshops so we could spread the crowd among all the rooms that were available.

"Now the rooms available to us are larger, and there's enough capacity in each to accommodate fewer workshops. That has given us the opportunity to rethink our approach and allowed us to concentrate on having a more focused group of topics."

While the workshop rooms are larger, there is no theater in the North building similar to the Arie Crown in the East building, where the bulk of the FMI convention used to be held. As a result, the Speaks session on Monday morning, which had traditionally been held in the theater, will be scheduled in the largest room available, Hammonds noted.

Besides reporting on the latest consumer trends and attitudes, the Speaks session will feature FMI's annual "State of the Food Industry" presentation, which will offer a variety of speakers on a variety of topics.

This year's presentation will feature "walk-on" appearances by James Ukrop, vice chairman and CEO of Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.; Margaret P. McEwan, vice president of consumer services and quality assurance for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass.; and Ulysses Adams, president of Ferndale Foods, Ferndale, Mich., on topics such as prepared food and value-added meals, human resources and Efficient Consumer Response initiatives -- including electronic data interchange, category management and continuous replenishment.

The new convention area has rooms available that FMI will lease on an hourly basis to vendors who want to conduct business reviews or other meetings with their retail customers.

According to Hammonds, these types of discussions have often been conducted in the past at vendor booths on the convention floor. "But there may be some issues that are competitively sensitive that companies would prefer not to discuss in the booth," he said. "So we've expanded the opportunities for these kinds of discussions by allowing companies to lease rooms on a prescheduled basis on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of the convention week." Another new opportunity for networking and other face-to-face discussions will come on Monday and Tuesday of the convention, when FMI introduces its idea-exchange breakfasts -- informal sessions from 7 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. -- "which will give attendees an easy way to kick around some ideas with groups of like-minded people," Hammonds said.

The breakfasts are an outgrowth of similar sessions at other FMI meetings during the year, he noted. "It's always interesting to come to a meeting and get a feel for what others have tried, and these breakfasts are an informal way of doing that."

The breakfasts, whose price is included in the convention registration fee, will be in a single room at McCormick Place, with signs on designated tables indicating what topics are open for discussion at those tables.

Among the subjects for discussion will be category management, food safety, family succession and natural food on Monday; and single-store operations, meal solutions, financial issues for independents and analysis of the Speaks presentation on Tuesday. Although there will not be formal moderators at each table, "there will be people in the area to help the flow of conversation," Hammonds said.

One approach being repeated after debuting last year is opening the convention floor at 10:30 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday, during the second workshop session, rather than waiting until after both morning workshops are over.

According to Hammonds, the reason for opening the floor earlier in the day was to maintain the same number of exhibit hours overall while allowing the show to operate from Sunday through Tuesday rather than extending into Wednesday afternoon.

He said many manufacturers appreciate the opportunity to send their staff home after Tuesday's exhibit rather than paying for an extra night's accommodations.

Opening the show during the second morning session gives manufacturers the opportunity to sit in on some of the educational programs, or to appear on panels during the workshops, Hammonds said, "and we've scheduled them to appear at the first sessions only on each day."

Rather than scheduling workshops on Wednesday, FMI will again present a general session -- geared this year to shopper trends, "to give people a better feel for what consumers of tomorrow will be looking for," Hammonds said.

The session, titled "Reshaping the Relationship:

A New Response to Consumer Needs," will feature two segments:

An industry panel that will interact with consumers in a satellite feed from five different cities. Panelists will include Michael Sansolo, FMI group vice president of education, industry relations and research; Michael L. Mulligan, vice president of sales for Supervalu, Minneapolis; and Jonathan F. Johnson, president and CEO of Community Pride Stores, Richmond, Va.

A presentation on safety, hosted by John Walsh, of television's "America's Most Wanted," who will talk about the role supermarkets can play in partnering with the community to curb crime -- part of a new initiative between FMI and Walsh's National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

One experiment tried at last year's convention that will not be repeated this year is the independents' track -- a compendium of some of the convention workshops held in one room that allowed independent operators with small staffs at the show to get a broader overview on a variety of topics.

However, Hammonds said several operators said they would prefer more time per subject, "so this year we will indicate certain workshops that are of particular interest to independents and provide guaranteed seating for members, to make it easier to identify which workshops they should attend and to make sure they can get in."

FMI members may reserve seats at all workshops again this year -- an idea that's growing in popularity, Hammonds said.

People attending this year's Chicago convention will also have the opportunity to voice their opinions on two topics that FMI considers paramount in the current session of Congress, Hammonds said: estate tax relief and tobacco regulations.

Hammonds said there will be kiosks on the convention floor that will make it possible for attendees to generate computerized letters to specific members of the Senate or House of Representatives.

According to Hammonds, "We have a realistic chance to get something done about estate tax relief this year -- it's already on the Congressional agenda, and as we talk to people in Congress, and even to those in the administration, they tell us part of tax reform is estate tax relief.

"In previous years the industry talked about it, but there was no support from the administration. So now we think it's a realistic possibility."

Tobacco regulation is another timely issue, Hammonds said. "Our goal is to keep the Food and Drug Administration out of regulating tobacco sales in supermarkets. The FDA says it wants to prevent tobacco sales to minors by fining companies that don't check IDs for anyone under 27. But the food industry already checks IDs, and we think the FDA is overstepping its authority."