Every May, horse lovers find their way to Louisville for The Kentucky Derby while restaurateurs have a different destination in mind—the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago.
For 93 years, operators have been making the annual trek looking for trends, products, networking, and business intelligence.
“I've been attending the NRA show for almost 40 years, and it's amazing how it has evolved and improved over those years,” says Phil Hickey, chairman of O’Charley’s Inc. and vice chair of the National Restaurant Association (NRA).
“I now approach each show with high expectations—that is, high ROI and high ROTI. The Return on Investment (ROI) is always profound, as each year my teams and I gain insight into making our business more profitable, far in excess of the investment required to attend.
“In addition, time is money, and the Return on Time Invested (roti) is always exceptional—time spent learning of new technologies, new equipment, creative food ideas, and innovative beverage concepts; meeting industry luminaries, seeing old friends, attending topical seminars that provide answers for my most pressing needs; well worth the time invested."
This year the show was moved up a few weeks to May 5-8 so that it wouldn’t have to compete with the G-8 Summit, a global leadership meeting that was scheduled for Chicago. The G-8 meeting has since been moved to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, but the NATO summit is still coming to the Windy City on May 20.
“We considered changing the dates, and we looked at Las Vegas and Orlando,” says Mary Pat Heftman, executive vice president, convention. “We realized the experience was not going to be the same for our attendees, and Chicago is just such a wonderful city. We didn’t want that experience changed.”
NRA Show attendance usually numbers about 60,000 people and draws from about 115 countries and all 50 states.
During the show, which is held at McCormick Place, about 550,000 square feet is used for exhibitors and the total square footage totals about 1.2 million square feet.
The speaker’s lineup for this year’s show is chock-full of best in class, including former President of the United States Bill Clinton; YUM! Brands Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive David Novak, and a host of celebrity chefs: Rick Bayless, Todd English, Stephanie Izard, and David Burke, along with Maneet Chauhan, a Food Network Chopped judge, chef and restaurateur, and “Top Chef” contestants Richard Blais, Spike Mendelsohn and Fabio Viviani.
“I have been trying to get Clinton for three years,” Heftman says. “We couldn’t be happier about having him as our keynote speaker.”
The convention chair for NRA Show 2012 says the former president “has a unique perspective on our nation and the world. Clinton’s insights are sure to be both interesting and entertaining, making his keynote address one of the main attractions at NRA Show 2012,” says the chair, Jack Crawford, CEO of Ground Round Independent Owners Cooperative LLC.
Heftman, who will be working on her 22nd NRA Show, has some advice for first-time attendees. “I think it is a good idea to make some notes about things that you are looking for. Plan a schedule and give yourself plenty of time. The real inspiration comes from running into something that you didn’t know you needed.” A mobile app also soon will be available to give attendees all the information they need to make the most of the NRA experience. “There are so many tools to help navigate the show,” Heftman says.
Kicking off the first night of the show is “Destination: Celebration”—an exclusive event to herald the first-ever Operator Innovations Awards in a luxe cocktail setting featuring marquee entertainment by Kenny Loggins atop the Harris Theater at Millennium Park. Award categories include: Food Safety, Health & Nutrition, Menu Development, Sustainability, and Technology Application.
The judges’ panel for the Operator Innovations Awards represents the major segments of the foodservice industry. All nominations were reviewed by the panel of industry leaders consisting of Patricia Bando (associate vice president, auxiliary services, Boston College), Scott Barton (president, fine dining division, Lettuce Entertain You), Jeff Broadhurst (president & CEO, Eat'n Park Hospitality Group), Marc Buehler (president, O'Charley’s), Jean-Marie Clement (director, global food & beverage line of business, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Worldwide), Douglas Davis (director, global food safety, Marriott International), Chris Demery (vice president, applications, OSI Restaurant Partners LLC), James Houser (vice president of administration, Delaware North Cos.), John Metz Jr. (executive chef, president and co-founder, Sterling Hospitality), Christopher Pappas (CEO, Pappas Restaurants Inc.), C.W. Craig Reed (director of food & beverage, Broadmoor Hotel), and Ron Serluco (senior vice president of operators, Guckenheimer Inc.).
On Sunday night, “Restaurants Rock” will be the “official” place to be. The event will feature food, drinks, live music and the supercharged Star of the Bar mixology competition. Proceeds benefit ProStart, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s high school program that builds the industry's future leaders.
On Monday night, Chicago says thank you to the NRA for staying in the Windy City by hosting the “NRA Show 2012 Block Party,” on Hubbard Street at State Street. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago will offer attendees entertainment, food and cocktails to unwind, reflect and enjoy the city.
This year more than 70 education sessions will be held throughout the show, featuring “Riding the Street Food Movement,” “Taking People With You,” and “Menu Innovation 2012: Turning Trends into Money Makers,” just to name a few.
“The NRA Show is always of great value to anyone who has a vested interest in the health of the industry at large,” says Julie Tumy, veteran foodservice marketing executive. “It is the right thing to do, to support it. I think we all realize that the well-being of the industry has such an important impact on our entire economy. It is vital to our American way of life.”
Also new this year is the Healthier Kids Fare pavilion, which underscores the NRA’s commitment to help operators increase healthy menu items for children.
“Children’s nutrition is one of the strongest trends we’re seeing in the restaurant industry right now,” says Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive of the NRA. “The success of our new Kids LiveWell program demonstrates that the industry is on the right track when it comes to highlighting nutritious options on menus nationwide. To further support this effort, we created the Healthier Kids Fare pavilion at NRA Show 2012 so that restaurant operators can explore the newest and most innovative food and beverage products.”
For many attendees, one of the biggest take-aways is the networking opportunities and the chance to connect with new business prospects.
“The NRA show is a great opportunity to meet with our clients. There is a great representation of both the chain restaurant leadership as well as the food manufacturing community,” says Rob Hardy, founding partner of Bellwether Food Group.
“Additionally, the NRA show in recent years has been a showcase for smaller companies just making an entrance into the foodservice marketplace. We have made some valuable connections at the NRA show.”
Cheryl Bachelder, chief executive of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and NRA board member, agrees. “I look forward to the NRA show each year. I enjoy connecting with friends in the industry, walking the amazing floor of exhibitors, and hearing speakers who provoke fresh thinking for the future. There is really no other industry event that has the breadth and depth of the NRA show.”
Heftman, who has already begun planning for 2013 when the show will return to its familiar dates of May 18-21, says that despite the tough economy during the past several years, the NRA has been reinvesting in the annual trade show by adding events, award programs, new pavilions and speakers, such as Clinton.
“We have made a lot of investment over the last few years, which has allowed us to recover from the recession much quicker. I give the board a lot of credit because it is hard to invest when you are down, but they understood,” Heftman says.
Heftman, who works with a staff of 23 full-time employees and hundreds of onsite personnel, says that during the show, if the weather is less than perfect, it isn’t such a bad thing.
“When the weather is bad, it is good for us. When there is drizzle and a little colder weather, people spend more time at the show. There are not that many things competing for their time, and it enhances focus.”
But no one disputes that there is plenty to offer, rain or shine, on the show floor.
Two other award programs that attendees will be able to focus on, which have become widely popular with attendees, are the Food & Beverage Innovations Awards and Kitchen Innovations Awards.
The 2012 Food & Beverage Product Innovations Award recipients include a wine by the glass bottled directly into a recyclable plastic cup and a 3-in-1 Soup, Sauce or Dip, a frozen product that allows operators to create three menu items by simply changing the preparation
Kitchen Innovations Award recipients will provide attendees with a front-row seat to view tomorrow’s most productive commercial kitchen equipment in the Kitchen Innovations Pavilion’s new central location on the show floor—letting attendees explore the productivity and profit potential of the most revolutionary kitchen equipment anywhere, designed to lower energy costs, reduce carbon footprint, and increase staff productivity.
Many of the enhancements to this year’s show were made through almost 15 months of planning and close scrutiny, paying attention to recommendations from attendees.
“In good times or in bad times, our purpose is to serve the industry. We bring the attendees what is new. It remains our commitment and guides all of our decisions,” Heftman says.
Clearly, when the show starts there are myriad of things that can go wrong but Heftman says that goes with the territory.
Last year a chef who was doing a demo found that none of his supplies were delivered to McCormick Place.
“He was able to go out on the show floor and gather everything he needed, including his utensils,” Heftman says.
“Any time you do an event, no matter the size or the length, there will always be things that will come up. There is no planning in advance for those challenges,” Heftman says.
After more than two decades of working on the show, Heftman seems prepared for any eventuality, and she still looks forward to the event, despite the long hours and last-minute snafus.
“I find Saturday morning, when the show floor doors open, to be just like Christmas morning. There is a huge buzz. It is really palatable.”