FDI EXPECTS ATTENDANCE RISE DESPITE INDUSTRY CONSOLIDATION

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Food Distributors International here says recent supplier consolidations and talks of a possible FDI alliance or merger with the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute are not adversely impacting advance company registrations for its upcoming annual Business Conference, March 2 to 5, in Dallas.FMI's involvement with FDI will further be discussed with FDI board members and FMI

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Food Distributors International here says recent supplier consolidations and talks of a possible FDI alliance or merger with the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute are not adversely impacting advance company registrations for its upcoming annual Business Conference, March 2 to 5, in Dallas.

FMI's involvement with FDI will further be discussed with FDI board members and FMI executives during the meeting, titled "Where the Industry Talks." Some industry observers speculate this could be the last version of this meeting held while FDI is an independent association. The popular conference features one-on-one meetings between wholesaler and supplier executives.

Meanwhile, despite consolidation among packaged goods suppliers and the recession, FDI reports advanced company signups for its Vendex (Vendor Distributor Exchange), a series of face-to-face sessions at the business conference between wholesaler executives and their supplier peers, is running 12% ahead on the wholesaler side compared to last year. Another feature of the conference, the Business Conference Suites, which offers senior distribution and supply managers a venue where they can discuss business strategies, is ahead 16% in wholesaler participation over the previous year.

On the supplier side, John Block, FDI president, told SN, "We have a blue-ribbon list of suppliers standing in line to meet with our wholesaler and food-service members."

FDI anticipated a marked decline in suppliers because of the number of manufacturer consolidations that took place over the past year, said Paul Schulz, FDI senior vice president. However, FDI restructured registration fees so that suppliers can bring in any number of participants without an extra charge, he said. The organization has also been aggressive in pursuing new supplier members like Tone Brothers and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. Consequently, supplier participation hasn't dropped off as expected. For the Vendex portion of the meeting, approximately 60 supplier companies will be participating, a 4% increase from last year. The number of supplier registrants for the Business Conference Suites portion of the meeting remains about the same, said Schulz.

"I think it will be much the same, barring another attack," said Block of overall attendance. "They come here for the same reason they come every year. The value of the sessions."

The program itself, as is the FDI custom, will vary little from previous years. "We'll just keep it the same," said Block. "It's just a very hard-working meeting. That's what our members want."

He noted that probably the most exciting addition to this year's event is having Barbara Bush as a special guest and luncheon speaker. He said he expects that the former first lady and mother of the current president will address issues of family values and national service rather than the political agenda of the food industry.

"I don't think she will focus on food," Block said. "I think she'll concentrate on God, mom and apple pie -- things that a lot of people have begun to focus on since the attacks of Sept. 11. I'm sure she'll tell a few family stories. She's a very humorous speaker."

Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton will give the conference's keynote address. The first member of the US. Army Special Forces (better known as the Green Berets) to rise to the nation's top military post, Gen. Shelton was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001.

"He's another very timely speaker," said Block. "I don't anticipate the war on terrorism will be over by then. He's certainly qualified to give us insights into what's been accomplished and, even more, what lies ahead."

FDI is scheduled to hold its annual Day in Washington and to give out the Thomas Jefferson Awards, June 26 to 27.

As with its business conference, Block said FDI intends to stay the course with its legislative agenda.

"We accomplished our highest priority this year, getting rid of death taxes," he said. "Now, we want to make that permanent."

Other items he would like to see from Congress include an economic stimulus package and the president's energy bill. "Fuel costs have gone way down for now, but we don't want to take chances with the future."

FDI also jointly sponsors several events with other industry organizations, including:

Joint Marketing Conference and Creative Choice Awards, Feb. 11 to 14, Las Vegas, with the National Grocers Association, Alexandria, Va.

Midyear Executive Conference, Sept. 19 to 21, Bermuda, with NGA.

Productivity Convention & Expo, Oct. 20 to 23, Atlanta, with Food Marketing Institute, Washington, and NGA.