LAS VEGAS -- The California Grocers Association is working to build its annual convention and trade show into a regional event in response to the shifting nature of industry forums in the West.With an upgraded program emphasizing more educational seminars, CGA is hoping to attract a larger base of retailers and exhibitors from out of state, Peter J. Larkin, CGA president, told SN last week. His comments

LAS VEGAS -- The California Grocers Association is working to build its annual convention and trade show into a regional event in response to the shifting nature of industry forums in the West.

With an upgraded program emphasizing more educational seminars, CGA is hoping to attract a larger base of retailers and exhibitors from out of state, Peter J. Larkin, CGA president, told SN last week. His comments came as the association concluded its most successful meeting in years.

CGA is redefining its activities as several other state associations in the West reconsider the nature of their own conventions, Larkin said.

"Five to seven years ago most of the state associations in the Western United States had conventions with trade shows," Larkin told SN. "But California and Oregon, and to a lesser extent Utah, are probably the only ones that still hold a trade show, now that Arizona has decided to eliminate that aspect of its convention beginning next year.

'As a result, our convention has started to attract more attention from other states, and we've found that if we continue to provide a quality educational program, as we have this year, then retailers from out of state will come. And if the retailers come, then our exhibit floor will continue to grow, and the convention could evolve into more of a Western regional show as suppliers follow retailers to CGA."

Larkin said last week's convention was "an overwhelming success," which augurs well for the prospect of a regional event, possibly as early as next year.

Among the factors for judging this year's event a success, Larkin said, are the following: Attendance, which doubled to about 3,500 after several years of declining turnouts.

The number of exhibitors, which rose more than 20% to 460, compared with 380 booths a year ago.

The positive reaction to moving the convention dates from a weekend to a midweek schedule and to featuring hands-on seminars rather than big-name speakers.

The ability to attract 5% to 10% of attendees from outside California.

"We did not aggressively promote our convention through other state associations," Larkin told SN, "but given the success of our convention this year, we plan to work with those associations to promote our show and seek more participation from their members, which should help us pick up exhibitors from other states."

Other state associations told SN they are considering the possibility of helping the CGA regionalize its convention.

Dwayne Richard, president of the Arizona Food Merchants Alliance, told SN his organization dropped its trade show after last spring's convention "because we felt it was a format that didn't meet the needs of our members.

"But while we will continue with a state convention with a new format, CGA has extended an offer to our members to attend their convention at membership prices. We see the CGA meeting evolving as a regional draw, and we will advise our members who want to attend a trade show close to home that CGA offers them a perfect opportunity."

The Washington Food Industries dispensed with its convention two years ago to concentrate on working with the legislature and state agencies, Doug Henken, president, told SN, "but we have received invitations for our members to attend conventions in California and Oregon."

Steve McCoy, president of the Oregon Grocery Industry Association, said his organization is moving its convention and trade show later this month from Eugene, Ore., to Portland "to be closer to where most of our members are, to make sure we have enough attendance to make it worthwhile for the exhibitors. And after we review the convention, as we do every year, we'll be able to say whether we would encourage attendance at a regional convention or not."

According to Larkin, last week's CGA convention here marked a major turning point for the association, with attendance and exhibit space up -- increases he attributed directly to altering the convention program and to gaining renewed support from the supplier community that comprises part of the CGA's membership.

In contrast to last year's convention, when workshops were held at the same time as the trade show, last week's convention featured general sessions and workshops in the mornings and the trade show in the afternoons. The convention itself also was held during the week -- Monday through Wednesday -- rather than over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Larkin pointed out.

"There was a time years ago when major retailers would send employees to a CGA convention in Las Vegas for three days of rest and relaxation and some business," he explained. "But in today's low-cost operating environment, most companies look at conventions differently and question the return on their investments more carefully.

"So what CGA tried to do this year was present more of an educational program that offers valid solutions to practical problems as well as an opportunity to network and have a little fun. We determined the convention had to be a business event, and people are more apt to think about business between Monday and Friday, whereas they want to spend the weekend with their families."

Besides changing the timing of the convention, the CGA also sought to change the content, Larkin said. "We appointed a convention oversight committee that represented a cross-section of the industry to help us determine the format and content and to make it more of a value.

"The committee's recommendation, besides moving it away from the weekend, was to beef up the educational nature of the program -- to move away from big-name, expensive speakers and put the money into genuine educational programs for members."

Last week's convention featured two general sessions, four concurrent workshops on both Monday and Tuesday, and a political breakfast featuring James Carville and Mary Matalin. Of the eight workshops, four were repeats of sessions held at last spring's Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago, Larkin pointed out.

"There are thousands of employees who will rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to go to FMI, so bringing the same brand of quality educational programs to them at a location they can get to easily has some benefits. And these were all hands-on sessions where employees could listen and learn and take something back to their jobs that they can implement."

With the alterations in the format and content having proved successful, Larkin said he would like to schedule the annual convention for the same week every year and in the same location, or at one or two rotating sites, so people can plan ahead.

"Many people in the industry know they'll be in Chicago at the FMI convention the first week of May. So we would like to find a permanent home for our convention -- perhaps a rotation between Las Vegas and Reno -- and establish it for the same time period every year. That's one of the things the convention oversight committee will be considering." Larkin said the CGA convention could be held within the state of California, "but you need a destination city, and Los Angeles or San Francisco or Long Beach [the site of last year's meeting] just aren't destinations. "And for people who work in those cities, it's easier just to drop in to the convention but not to stay around long enough to network."

If the convention does begin to attract a wider number of out-of-state attendees, it could be held in a city even farther outside California than either of the Nevada sites, Larkin added. Last week's convention was the first that Larkin has presided over since the retirement last year of Don Beaver after 17 years as the CGA's top executive.

Prior to joining the CGA, Larkin spent seven years as vice president for state and government relations and environmental affairs for the FMI, after serving as director of government and media affairs for Kroger Co., Cincinnati, from 1982 to 1989. He worked previously as manager of government and media programs for Phillip Morris USA and subsequently the Tobacco Institute.

During his year at the CGA, Larkin has overseen development of the association's first-ever strategic plan, a 10-point program that focuses on establishing more effective communications with members, enhancing government relations, creating a more effective organization, enhancing the growth of the annual convention and trade show, improving relations with suppliers, providing guidance on industry-related technology, providing quality educational programs, enhancing strategic alliances with other associations, enhancing the quantity and quality of membership, and conducting all business with fiscal integrity.

The association has also fulfilled its role as a lobbyist for the industry in the state legislature. The CGA's accomplishments this past year, Larkin said, include the following: Helping to pass legislation as part of the welfare reform bill that assures uniformity and compatibility of Electronic Benefits Transfer systems in each California county, which will administer EBT reforms (compared with statewide administration of the reforms in other states).