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December 2002: Volume 44, Number 12

Betty Ford, Mysticism and Livin’ in the Old West
by Ronald Y. Pérez, WC&P Managing Editor

Regardless of venue or time of year, you can always count on one thing from trade shows -- they will always incorporate the host city’s stereotype and integrate it as a theme. Which brings me to Phoenix and the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) show in October. Being a native Arizonan, I know before I even step inside the downtown Civic Plaza what awaits my arrival.

Sure enough, it’s all there. From the chocolate-molded cowboy hats (courtesy of Oasis) to the Old West décor to the Stetsons, buckles and boots that grace booths and attendees. For some, Halloween has come three weeks early. (All parties from Texas are excluded from this group since many of them do dress like this on a regular basis.) Still, anyone who knows Phoenix can tell you that it’s about as “ranch country” as Miami Beach, where coincidentally last year’s show took place. Some towns/outposts in Arizona are certainly “ranch” applicable, but none of them have civic plazas -- i.e., convention centers.

As I walk the floor on the show’s first day (the exhibition lasted two days), I’m besieged with the sound of a drum thumping as well as the unforgettable chant of an Indian (uh, Native American for you PC folk) bellow. Curious, I commence toward the commotion. There, where just an hour later visitors will saddle up to the water bar, are two native Native Americans sharing some of their tribe’s traditional dances with the rather engaged crowd. Only the older gentleman speaks as the younger one smiles a lot and performs the more strenuous exercises. I expect any minute now that Little Joe and Hop Sing from the old TV show Bonanza will pop up from the background and invite me to supper. Alas, I settle for the permeating scent of a nearby snack bar...

As for the water bar, it came off as an undeniable hit. According to Arthur von Wiesenberger, of Best Cellars LLC and bottledwaterweb.com, it was the first time IBWA embarked on such an idea. Lines often ran three to four deep for those seeking a free water sample from behind the counter. IBWA staff as well as von Wiesenberger manned their posts gallantly. “It’s one bar that even Betty Ford would have approved,” von Wiesenberger says. After being intrigued by the vitamin water offered (colors reminiscent of Gatorade), I steered away from the expensive Voltic and decided to go with a bottle with a fancy label that matched my tie.

“This year’s show will pave the way for next year’s show,” von Weisenberger says. With great enthusiasm, he’s anticipating next year’s event as IBWA will share trade show floor space within the colossal event that is the Worldwide Food Expo (Chicago, Oct. 29-Nov. 1)…

Next year’s expo also marks a shift in how certain organizations are handling their trade show affairs. Henry R. (Bob) Hidell III, of Hidell-Eyster, an IBWA board of directors member, says, “It’s a wise decision on our part. If you look globally at other trade organizations, they are all facing the same dilemma. They have more crises to deal with, they need more money, and they need professional support within and outside. The problems aren’t going away even though consolidation has impacted levels of membership.”

Rick Hess, of Hess Machines International, senses the decline of the independent trade show a la InterBev, which he perceives to be more of a “marketing” show where people vie to create the next Sobe or Snapple. Hess believes next year’s show will create more activity and participation. In 2004, the association introduces an IBWA Convention at BevExpo or a facsimile thereof where Worldwide Food will sell space to primarily the dairy industry, which is pushing for an annual trade show. The future beyond that is still up in the air.

Hidell also looks forward to the expo next year and admits to being a “numbers guy” when he says: “It came upon the idea of bringing 30,000 people past our door. I’ve been in the business for 35 years. There’s a mysticism about how simple the business appears. The product is highly regulated and micromanaged from conception to consumption. The Food Expo, like everybody else, is trying to save its (hide). The way you do that is you become inclusive, and you also become a gorilla.”

It will be interesting to see if this gorilla roars or gets put back in its cage.