Six Observations I Am Making About the 2013 NRA Show.

Of course at this year’s National Restaurant Show in Chicago, there were some old favorites—the guy with the waffle hat, the generous Wisconsin Cheese and Vienna Beef booths, the Rube Goldberg-ish orange juicer machines.

It’s not really the size of a small human being with the ability to walk and wave.

There’s also goofy stuff, like the parahuman/chimeric Digital Dining Costumed P.O.S. system mascot (pictured) (the system might not be goofy, but the wordless mascot was), and Pixe, a company that absolutely insisted they take my photo with an iPad and post it with a goofy caption to a site that would let me “share” after they emailed me a link (forgetting that I can do all that on my iPhone already without them, and without giving the restaurant my email, which I’d rather not do).

Not a lot of swag, either. Are we as a society kind of tired of “swag?”

Anyway.

Here are my Top 6 Observations from spending a day in Chicago’s McCormick Place at the NRA Show (man, I wish it weren’t the same three letters as a certain politically divisive organization).

Observation 1: Coca-Cola Freestyle touchscreen Coke Machines are no longer a thing. It was introduced in 2009, and even just last year the lines were really long at NRA. This year, you could waltz up and get a spritz of your own recipe of vanilla-cherry-Pibb-Lime-Dasani-Powerade-Orange-Fanta any time you felt like it. Now that the machine is all over stripmalled America, it’s not newsy. (Yet it was still the focus of the Coke booth.) Well-distributed, Coke. So…what else you got in your pipeline?

Observation 2: McCormick Place is not set up for the #NRAShow hashtag. There’s almost no place to sit like a dignified person and charge your iPhone or iPad or iWhatev. C’mon, McCormick Place. I know you want to encourage people to walk and only sit down when it’s time to do business in the booths. But c’mon. We’re live-tweeting the hell out of this #NRAShow. That’s the thing we do now to prove to suspicious compatriots who didn’t get to travel to The Presumably Windy City we were responsibly absorbing substance at all moments. An outlet that doesn’t make me sit on the floor? Please?

Observation 3: There are two kinds of people at the #NRAShow. When you’re strolling the show, everyone either looks absurdly confident or worried.

Observation 4: The people who look worried are probably worried about healthcare or, more vaguely, “branding.” As I stood in line to go into a session in room 402A, the folks heading into room 402B were lined up like it was a nightclub—and the topic was healthcare. Later, I overheard one say to another as they left that session, “Well, that probably paid for the trip right there.” Good work, healthcare session presenter. All the sessions I went to that had to do with “branding” filled completely up. I get the sense that everyone recognizes it’s important but worries they don’t quite understand what the hell it is. I base that on the looks on the audience faces, questions in the Q&A period, and content which I would describe as “useful but pretty basic.”

Enthusiasm and A Zealot’s Intensity helps this fellow from Humm in Austin explain to a random blogger such as myself how customers love answering a survey on an iPad mini delivered to the table as if it were part of the bill. It’s the future of customer feedback (my summary, not a verbatim) (exclamation point implied).
Enthusiasm and A Zealot’s Intensity helps this fellow from Humm in Austin explain to a random blogger such as myself how customers love answering a survey on an iPad mini delivered to the table as if it were part of the bill. It’s the future of customer feedback (my summary, not a verbatim) (exclamation point implied).

Observation 5: In the tech section, the enthusiastic young people are instructed to “Attack! It’s somewhat humorous: much of the trade show is made of people putting out food and watching people with whom they will never do business grab big hands full, or serious business people there to do actual business with real customers who need the goods they provide to make or sell food. All of these people are rather passive and even a little disinterested in the average NRA Show walker: either they just want you to take the food and go, or they sort of already know who the dealmakers are and don’t want to engage randomly with everyone. But then you wander into tech alley (once again back by the restrooms) and they attack like fleas born into a room with no mammals, and you’re the first warm-blooded creature to enter their blood-starved habitat. They jump on everybody who comes by. They’re searching for eye contact, jollying up each and every passerby, eager to explain themselves no matter who you are. They don’t even ask who you are until they’re way into their spiel. It’s kinda cute.

Observation 6: Creative, socially interactive ways of gathering customer feedback is the newest biggest deal. A lot of the friendly people who accosted those who wandered into Tech Alley were there to helpfully harvest customer feedback (Humm wants to hand out iPads at the customer’s table; Survly wants to encourage customers who had a good experience to use their mobile device to leave feedback on the usual social sites like Yelp and Google Places). And then when I sent the following tweet, you can see how quick the “Talk to the Manager” people reacted, sort of real-time-proving the way their scheme might work:

These guys reacted fast.