Retail’s BIG Show: Still Going Strong After 105 Years

March 17, 2016

Attendees at the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA) Annual Meeting in January 1911 probably didn’t realize they were witnessing history in the making. But what started that year as a small event at a hotel in New York City during the annual buyers’ market has now become Retail’s BIG Show, one of the longest-running trade shows in the U.S.

The NRDGA chose January because that was when retailers flooded New York fresh from their cash-infused holiday season, ready to purchase apparel and merchandise for the coming year. But holding the event in the height of winter has sometimes presented challenges. By the 1980s, the event had grown to nearly 10,000 attendees and couldn’t fit into a single venue, so activities were split between the Sheraton New York and the Hilton hotels.

“Attendees left their coats behind, crossing 52nd Street – sometimes in deep snow and always in freezing cold weather – between educational sessions and meetings to review products and services ranging from hangers to shopping bags and cash registers.” said Susan Newman, senior vice president of Conferences and Marketing for the National Retail Federation ((NRF), producer of the BIG Show.

In 1958, the NRDGA merged with another organization to become the National Retail Merchants Association (NRMA). In 1990, the NRMA merged with the American Retail Federation and the National Retail Federation was born. The NRF is now the world's largest retail trade association.

By the 1990s, technology vendors were clamoring for exhibit space, pushing out many of the traditional products. The Hilton was bursting at the seams with exhibits covering ballrooms on four floors, in addition to the hallways. Educational sessions were still being held across the street at the Sheraton. To accommodate the growing number of attendees and exhibitors, the show moved to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in 1997, where it has experienced steady growth ever since and has made the TSNN Top 50 fastest-growing shows list numerous times. The 2016 edition of Retail’s BIG Show hosted more than 33,000 attendees and exhibitors from 94 countries around the globe.

In the early days, the show’s emphasis was on store fixtures and supplies such as display shelves and hangers. But as technology evolved, so did the showfloor. Now the exhibitor list includes a diverse array of tools that retailers need (and consumers expect) to create a modern shopping experience with categories including merchandising, operations, information technology, customer service, supply chain management, and more. “Retail is changing so fast and we’re a one-stop-shop to help [attendees] stay on top of all that change,” Newman said.

One thing that hasn’t changed in more than 100 years is the show's mission to educate retailers and give them perspective on the future of retail. Exhibitor-led BIG !dea sessions focus on topics to help retailers overcome challenges and the ever-changing demands of creating personalized customer experiences, maximizing mobile and e-commerce technology, improving global reach, and more.

Newman attributes much of the BIG Show’s success to the fact that it provides direct access to information and technology solutions that retailers want and need to grow their businesses. “Time is money, and to see it all in one place gives them an idea of all that’s available in an incredibly efficient and effective way,” she said.

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Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.