This restaurant executive shares the lessons she's learned from the showroom floor.

For Karen Williams, vice president of operations services at Applebee’s, the annual NRA Show in Chicago is an opportunity to see what the future of the restaurant industry holds.

“The biggest reason I go to NRA Show is to get steeped in what’s new and emerging in the restaurant industry,” she says. “Some of this comes through connections and planned meetings with current suppliers and partners, and other times it comes through exploration; taking a tour of the showroom floors and getting a fresh view.”

Regardless of how she experiences NRA Show, Williams says that what she has learned there has influenced the way she solves business problems and has impacted solutions that Applebee’s has explored. “Some of that has come through dialog with exhibitors or exposure to new product lines and technologies,” she says, “and some has come over time as I build my knowledge base, year over year, from one show to the next.” 

NRA Show provides a backdrop for Williams to connect with colleagues and vendor partners in an environment that is less formal than a traditional conferenceroom meeting, which she says “brings concepts to life more quickly.” Additionally, she has been able to leverage these existing relationships to make new connections at the show. “The most productive new contacts have been through introductions made at the show by existing contacts or suppliers; so it’s really valuable to meet up with people who you know at the show,” Williams says.

Sharing the experience of the show also fosters relationships within the Applebee’s team, including franchise and company members. “We have used our walkthroughs at NRA Show as fuel for brainstorming and innovation discussions,” Williams says. “We’ve met with suppliers for Q&A sessions in their exhibit space and developed strategies for future in-restaurant testing. NRA Show is truly a unique experience.”

Products are another event highlight. Williams says that she takes a systematic approach and views products related to problems her team is trying to solve. “One year we may be exploring equipment solutions, or at other times technology or smallwares.”

To get the most out of the show, Williams plans ahead to ensure she visits any must-see exhibits. “I also allow time for breaks and a bit of wandering around,” she says. “If I am traveling with a group, I ensure that I get some time alone to explore my interests. That keeps the show fresh for me. Oh, and I also wear comfortable shoes.”

Her advice for first-time attendees is that they should plan what they want to see and where they should stay to maximize time at the show and in Chicago. “It’s important to remember that you don’t have to see everything in one day,” Williams says. “I think it would be impossible as well as exhausting. Think quality over quantity.”

Though NRA Show offers many lessons and networking opportunities, the real value is that attendees learn so much in such a short amount of time. “NRA Show is an outstanding opportunity to get exposed to a lot of ideas fast, whether you’re entrepreneur or a leader in a corporate environment,” she says. “For a nominal fee, one can pressure test ideas by talking with others in your field or comparing products and services within or across your competitive set. Where else can you do that in the course of a few days?”

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