Despite Date Shift, National Restaurant Show Draws a Big Crowd to Sold-out Showfloor

May 9, 2012

Mary Pat Heftman, executive vice president for the National Restaurant Association’s NRA Show 2012, remembers the exact day - July, 26, 2011 - she was told the event was going to have to move off of its traditional late-May show dates at Chicago’s McCormick Place for what was then supposed to be the G8 Summit (now NATO Summit) coming to town.

“We were 80-percent sold out,” Heftman said. “We saw 8-percent attrition (of exhibitors) at that point.”

The show’s dates were moved to May 5-8, but with a lot of hard work by the NRA show staff, the numbers crept back up and eventually the entire showfloor was sold out before the doors opened.

“It really is a remarkable year,” Heftman said.

She added the pre-registration and hotel room numbers were up, compared with last year, and the showfloor also was up 5 percent.

This year’s event attracted 61,000-plus registrants from all 50 states and more than 100 countries - a 6-percent increase, compared with  2011.

“A lot of help came from the hotels that had early-bird discounts,” Heftman said.

The aisles of NRA Show 2012 were teeming with buyers looking at all of the latest products for everything and anything to do with the restaurant industry.

On the second day of the show, there were long lines at booths like Coca-Cola to try out new fountain drinks and all the seats were full for presentations by Bravo Top Chefs such as Spike Mendelsohn at the World Culinary Showcase.

The sold-out show spanned two halls with 1,800 exhibitors, as well as the International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event held in the Grand Ballroom at McCormick.

“IWSB was up 29 percent in space over last year,” Heftman said. “It really was just meant to be a boutique show.”

In the IWSB section, the “Star of the Bar” contest, in which bartenders competed to make the best cocktail, drew a  lively crowd and booths serving samples of wines and beers from around the world also saw a lot of activity.

“We added more demonstrations and more menu pairings this year,” Heftman said. “We are trying to deliver how wine, spirits and beer enhance a meal.”

Another highlight of the four-day event was a keynote address given by former President Bill Clinton.

Even though inclement weather caused the closure of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where Clinton’s plane was meant to land and he was an hour and half late for the keynote with 4,500 people in the Arie Crown Theater, the majority of the crowd waited it out.

An orchestra filled the time, prompting Clinton to say after he arrived, “I think I should begin by thanking the orchestra. For a moment, I thought I was president again.”

The main topic of Clinton’s keynote was about fighting childhood obesity and how the restaurant industry plays a key role in keeping kids healthy.

“There is a very narrow edge between falling to hunger or having enough, but not to buy healthy food,” Clinton said.

Overall, exhibitors and attendees gave NRA Show 2012 positive reviews across the board.

Roderic Ridgway, general manager of Oakland, Calif.-based Cook Natural Products, said it was his company’s first year at the show, and it started off on a high note with a Product Innovations Award for its Mara’s Pasta.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” said Brendan McEntree, president and owner of Cook Natural Products.

He added, “We were so excited about this award. We were up against companies like Heinz and Kraft.”

Bill Lowe, president of The Restaurant Company, which owns several Arby’s franchises, said it was his 24th year at the show.

“I attend ever year to have a chance to take a look at all the new innovations,” he added. “It’s good to take it back home and try to make it work.”

Even though the show was a success this year, Heftman said, she emphasized they weren’t just content with keeping things status quo for next year’s show that will be even bigger with an extra hall added.

“We’re always tweaking,” she added. “It’s got to be different every year for the people. We’ll assess things we want to keep or improve things that need to be replaced.”

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