The independent grocery sector marked a big welcome back this week with the in-person return of The NGA Show, held in Las Vegas by the National Grocers Association (NGA).
The NGA Show 2021 and its sister event, the NGA 2021 Executive Conference, drew more than 2,300 independent grocery industry stakeholders — including independent retailers, wholesalers, food retail industry executives, food/CPG manufacturers and service providers from nearly all 50 states — over four days of events at the Paris and Bally’s hotel/casinos. The association noted that its 38th annual conference and trade show also featured a sold-out exhibit hall showcasing new products and services from nearly 300 vendors.
NGA had last gathered industry stakeholders in person at its marquee event in late February 2020, when The NGA Show was held at the San Diego Convention Center. Two weeks later, however, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and, two days later, the United States declared the virus a national emergency, triggering a mass shutdown of businesses, public spaces and events, and much of the economy.
As the COVID crisis lingered, last October NGA rescheduled The NGA Show 2021 to May 16 to 18 at the Caesars Forum Convention Center in Las Vegas, back from its original dates of March 7 to 9. Then in early February, with the pandemic still a major concern, NGA rescheduled the event to Sept. 19 to 21 and changed the venue to Las Vegas, based on updated COVID vaccine rollout projections and the reopening status in Nevada. Both the show and executive conference had enhanced safety protocols for attendees, who were required to wear masks at all indoor events and present proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to gain entry.
“After 18 of the most challenging months our industry has ever faced, we are honored and excited to be returning to Las Vegas with an in-person NGA Show to celebrate the hard work and dedication of our ‘supermarket superheroes’,” NGA President and CEO Greg Ferrara said at the show’s opening on Sept. 19. “The NGA Show continues to be the marquee event for the supermarket industry to network and learn best practices. We’re already looking forward to returning to Las Vegas next spring to celebrate NGA’s 40th anniversary.”
In the opening session, Ferrara outlined NGA’s key initiatives, including an association rebranding with a new logo and tagline, “At the heart of the community”; a new economic impact study demonstrating independent grocery’s strength as a local and national growth engine; and enforcement of antitrust laws to create a level playing field for independent grocers.
He also credited the industry for rising to the occasion during the pandemic.
“Nothing about this past year-and-a-half has been business as usual, and as we continue to navigate our ‘new normal,’ we have heard from many of you about the challenges and pressures you’ve faced during these unprecedented times and how you have partnered with NGA to find support and solutions,” Ferrara said. “And despite the uncertainty, we know that our industry is looking to the future for ways that you can enrich your communities, strengthen your businesses and support your associates.”
Highlights of the show were led by the exhibit hall. NGA noted that specialty areas made product sourcing easier, with pavilions including the North American Meat Institute, The World of Latino Cuisine, The Technology Pavilion and Equipment, Design & Safety Pavilion as well as the Thought Leadership Theater.
The opening keynote address, sponsored by The Kraft Heinz Co., was presented by “Chef Jeff” Jeff Henderson, an award-winning American chef, critically acclaimed New York Times best-selling author, philanthropist and television personality. Henderson illuminated the audience with high-impact strategies to empower change and inspire fulfillment. Also, attendees mixed and mingled at networking events, including the kick-off Opening Reception, Best Bagger Championship and After Party, Creative Choice Awards breakfast and Closing Celebration.
NGA said the show’s education program was expanded to offer more than 50 sessions, featuring over 100 experts on topics such as people development, finances, fresh foods, sustainable strategies, technology trends, excellence in operations, family business succession planning, e-commerce, omnichannel marketing, foodservice and merchandising. In addition, the Super Breakfast Session titled “The Independent's Guide To Navigating Growth During Complex and Volatile Times: Wargaming 2022” gave a high-level look at the challenges facing independent retailers in 2022, focusing on the forces behind change that’s reshaping the retail environment.
The NGA Show had a full lineup on the awards front, including the following:
• Hy-Vee’s Ben Miller won Best Bagger Champion, besting nine other baggers from independent grocers and collecting a grand prize of $10,000.
• NGA presented its Peter J. Larkin Community Service Award, which recognizes strong community service, to its entire grocery retailer and wholesaler membership for their efforts in supporting their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The award typically is intended for a single company.
• Pam Coy, owner of Viking Village Foods in Wisconsin, took the WGA Woman of the Year Award.
• Winners of the annual Creative Choice Awards, announced in May, were presented their awards at the show. Thirteen independent supermarket operators — grouped into segments of one to 15 stores and more than 15 stores — received 16 awards across eight categories, plus two special mentions. The awards spotlight the independent grocery industry’s best marketing and merchandising programs.
The two-day NGA Executive Conference kicked off at the Paris Hotel & Casino a day before The NGA Show. The invitation-only event, designed for CEOs and their leadership teams, aims to deliver insights that help companies boost profitability and identify business opportunities.
The conference program featured networking events, enhanced educational sessions and expanded opportunities for trading partners to connect. Sessions covered such topics as “Five Trends Everyone Will Be Chasing Tomorrow”; “Counting Data Among Independents’ Strengths”; “Supermarket Sustainability: How to Resonate with Shoppers”; “How Grocers Can Be Cyber-Secure”; “Future Forecast: Competitive Outlook for 2021-25”; “Follow the Science: Health and Safety Best Practices for Shopper and Employee Confidence”; “The State of Snacking in the 2020s”; “E-Commerce After COVID: Where Online Grocery Is Going Next”; and “Grocers, How Did COVID-19 Change You?”.
“These key issues are crucial to understanding how to stay ahead of a rapidly changing dynamic marketplace where innovation will make or break a business,” commented Jonathan Downey, senior vice president of industry relations at NGA. “These learnings are the keys to success.”
Also at the Executive Conference, NGA presented its Industry Service Award to Dennis Belcastro, vice president of industry affairs and customer development at Kimberly-Clark North America, and the Thomas F. Wenning Pinnacle PAC Award to Gerry Kettler, director of consumer affairs at Niemann Foods.
This year represented the first time that the NGA Executive Conference and The NGA Show were held in the same location. The NGA Show 2022 is slated for Feb. 27 to March 1, 2022, at the Caesar’s Forum Convention Center in Las Vegas.
“The combined experience of the Executive Conference and NGA Show delivered actionable insights to help their businesses embrace the opportunities available to the most aggressive innovators,” Ferrara said. “We’re excited about what our attendees will be taking home with them and we’ll continue to build on this as we return for the 2022 NGA Show in just a few months.”