From the NRA Show floor: Optimism and investment

Word on the street (well, floor) at the 2013 National Restaurant Association Show was "optimism." We solicited feedback from hundreds of exhibitors and attendees about their take on the event, which ran over the weekend in Chicago, and optimism emerged as the common theme.

Additionally, educational sessions tended to be full capacity; scores were turned away from Sunday's keynote address by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz because it was a packed house; the North Hall Level 1 exhibit space returned after a few years' hiatus; and a new pavilion — Alternative Bitestyle — opened up, showcasing special dietary needs.

"Last year, attendees were dipping their toes in the water. This year, they've got their suits on and they're ready to swim," said Betsy Craig, CEO of MenuTrinfo, which was positioned in the Alternative Bitestyle space on the bottom level of the McCormick Center.

Attendance reflected these observations: This year's event attracted more than 62,500 registrants from all 50 states and 100+ countries, representing a second consecutive year of growth. The lodging category saw the largest increase in registrants by more than 10 percent. Restaurant/foodservice, retail and press registration also experienced growth.

Consensus from the floor is that mobile is king and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Online ordering, loyalty programs, energy efficiency and big data also emerged as common themes. Thanks to a better lending environment, the show was also lifted by a strong interest in digital menu boards, tablets, robust and future-proofed POS systems, healthy menu items, gluten-free, kids' nutrition and much more.

A renewed confidence

A majority of those we spoke with confirmed that restaurant operators are investing more in their business.

"There is a renewed confidence in restaurant industry. Before, there was uncertainly because operators needed cash for their day to day survival and operations. Now they're reinvesting in their business. They're replacing equipment, not just fixing it like they have been doing the past few years," said Sarah Puls, business unit manager, Hobart.

The difference is noteworthy even from just last year, let alone two to three years ago when the industry was still in the grip of the recession.

"Last year was fabulous. This year is exceeding that. Although there are pockets in the market that are still slow, overall the industry is up and it's solidifying, particularly in QSR and c-stores," said Scott Deschetler, from Ice-O-Matic.

Not only was the consensus that there was more booth visits this year, but quality booth visits.

Joy Capps from People Matter said her company had "much more" leads this year. "Operators are ready to spend now. They weren't last year," Capps said.

Mohamed Makawi, from Vito Oil Filtration, added that his company received 17,000 leads in three days. "It's been a really good show with quality traffic; a really good show," he said.

The exhibitors themselves may have even been higher quality compared to last year, particularly on the fledgling — and complex for most operators — mobile side.

"Last year, there were a lot of novelty companies. People were jumping into the space because they knew they had to be there. But I'm not sure they were doing it right. This year, there are much better mobile products because companies are getting the funding," said Henry Helgeson, CEO of Merchant Warehouse. "Last year, companies were more controlled. This year, they're ready to invest and grow."

Digital signage heyday

In addition to mobile, digital signage seems to be experiencing its heyday.

"Last year, people were cautiously optimistic and tentative about spending. They were on the floor getting information mostly, but not really making a commitment. This year, it's been full optimism and investment. They're more confident," said Sarah Erdman from QA Graphics. Her digital signage/kiosk-focused company experienced double the traffic on the first day than it did during the entire show last year.

Rich Ventura, from NEC Display Solutions, echoed that observation, claiming the company had "three times as much traffic" compared to last year.

Dave Rattan, with Stratacache, predicts digital menu board saturation will be a slow process, becoming the standard about four or five years from now. But now, customers "expect them," he said. And restaurant operators don't have the sticker shock about purchasing them like they did two to three years ago.

A representative from the ViewSonic booth opined that interest in digital signage may be increasing because operators finally realize an ROI; whereas they didn't really have that quantifiable information a year or two ago.

And Stacy Moore, from Panasonic, said operators are well aware that they should be exploring digital menu boards in-store. The next trend, she said, will be growth of digital menu boards at the drive-thru, where limited-service restaurants experience the bulk of their business.

Restaurant operators intrigued by variety of products

Restaurant operators' optimism stems from the increase in funding, the technology-influenced opportunities, and the customer sentiment.

"This is a bigger show with more energy. Funding has opened up. Last year was a trickle after about four years. The flood gates opened this year. Banks are in it," said Marley Hodgson, CEO and cofounder of Mad Greens.

Marla Topliff, president of Rosati's Pizza, added that the variety of items featured at the show seemed unprecedented, particularly in the technology pavilion and particularly in the mobile space.

"Mobile is not only a trend, it's a necessity and most of us (operators) don't know that much about it. I think that has helped with the show traffic this year," she said. "But the trend in general is looking positive. The restaurant industry is resilient and it always has been."

Coincidentally, while the show came to a close Tuesday afternoon, a new report came out claiming that restaurant sales are experiencing all-time highs right now.

Next year's NRA Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show is scheduled for May 17-20 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

Read more about restaurant trends.

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