As executive vice president of the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, Deirdre Flynn ensures that the organization runs smoothly and successfully. Flynn is committed to elevating the value and services NAFEM brings to its members through education, training, advocacy, industry relations, networking, data sharing/information and of course, The NAFEM Show.
Prior to joining NAFEM as its chief staff executive in 2002, Deirdre Flynn was executive vice president of the Marketing & Communications Division of SmithBucklin Corporation, an association management firm, where she worked with NAFEM for nearly 20 years managing trade show, strategic planning, media relations, communications and branding programs for the association. Additionally, Deirdre held senior marketing and management positions with a wide variety of food and foodservice organizations, healthcare societies and technology user groups.
Total Food Service had the chance to sit down with Deirdre Flynn to discuss what’s next for The NAFEM Show and its deep connection with the foodservice and hospitality industries.
Can you share your background with our readers?
I began my career with an association management company: Smith Bucklin. They managed NAFEM and their show. So from 1981 to ‘95, I worked exclusively on the show. We then split into two separate teams. One that did what we called NAFEM regular and one that we call NAFEM show. That evolved in 2002 and I started to get involved with the development and execution of a strategic plan that incorporate everything into one. Soon after the decision was made by NAFEM to bring association and show management in house and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to move to NAFEM and I’ve been here ever since.
What is it that has sparked your interest in the food service industry? What do you find fascinating about it, what continues to make it fresh and different and interesting?
I love manufacturing and the process of taking raw materials and seeing something produced at the end of that development from idea to conception and physical product. I also love food and hospitality. Who doesn’t like to talk about or see what the latest food and flavor trends are? It’s high touch and it has evolved into a fascinating high tech industry. It’s constantly evolving and changing. So the people at NAFEM’s member companies that I get to work with are smart, and innovative, and they’re entrepreneurial, and they don’t settle. The speed of change in the industry creates demands on commercial and non-commercial operators to respond to the latest food and flavor trends. I love watching people share technology, and respond to the challenges of listening to a customer and spin it and make it work.
So talk about how NAFEM’s vision and mission has evolved over your 20 plus years?
When I started with them, we had only produced four shows up until that point. So the focus was very much on creating a sustainable model. The focus for non-show activities was on the regulatory side. It’s interesting in today’s regulatory environment how much focus we have on international legislative trade issues. What we are seeing is manufacturers being diligent about their processes, their materials and to look longer term at how they do things. NAFEM has grown over the years to be recognized as a voice that can provide constructive feedback as to how regulatory, standardization changes and legislative changes impact the manufacturing process positively and negatively. From a show perspective, it’s customer interaction, customer focus groups, listening to understand the customer’s business and ultimately their attendee’s business priorities. Our mission is then to communicate that back to the membership and the exhibit base so that people keep wanting to come to The NAFEM Show.
What have you done to help attendees get the most out of their show visit?
We also make sure that our exhibitors understand that the attendee isn’t coming because they feel like taking a vacation trip to Orlando or New Orleans or Anaheim. We work to make sure that everybody understands that there’s a limited amount of time to see lots of product and make buying decisions that are going to impact them for the next three to seven years.
How has the exhibitor base evolved through the years?
There’s a greater infusion of technology into products. Again it’s all about adaptability of products to keep up with menu changes, concept change, and seasonal menus. At this year’s show you can expect to see a number of innovations that focus on preparing product for delivery. Cooking technologies that were used primarily in restaurants have now crossed over into the non-commercial side as well. As palates have become more sophisticated, quick service and fast casual have forced our members to adapt.
How has the phenomenon of Food TV and the Cooking Channel impacted the industry?
We just had this conversation last week when we were out at the Culinary Institute in Napa for a conference. I asked the Dean of the CIA what students were saying they were interested in. I fully expected that the response would be the Celebrity Chef. To my surprise, he told me the hot answer now is food bloggers. Two years ago everybody wanted to be the next Food Network star in comparison.
As you look at your goals for this year’s show, what’s on the horizon?
At the top of that list is to provide as much education for attendees as possible with an extensive seminar program. We will also be bringing back our What’s Hot, What’s Cool, What Works? We’ve taken that to a new level with the creation of four lounges that will display the products along with the story of how the product helped the operator.
How will the tremendous growth in e-commerce be reflected at the show?
There is no question our channel is a big ball of twine. And there are lots of parts and pieces and lots of players in that. NAFEM as an organization doesn’t take a side on the pros and cons of channels. What we try to do is provide our members with resources and contacts based on how they choose to go to market and put them in touch with people that can help them. I can tell you that the lines are more blurred today than ever.
It’s been interesting to watch the meaning of the “NA” in the NAFEM name evolve.
Defining it has been a work in progress. As we get ready for Orlando, a NAFEM member needs to manufacture with brick and mortar in North America or contract with somebody to make the product for them. They are recognized in the industry as a manufacturer or they are the selling arm of a parent or a brother or a sister company who manufactures for them. Although it still is a bit gray, what happened eight to ten years ago, is that a lot of North American food service equipment manufacturers entered into partnerships for established plants and manufacturing facilities in other parts of the world to service those markets because from a business perspective it simply doesn’t make sense to ship a walk-in cooler to Shanghai.
When we covered the HOST Show in Milan last year it dawned on me that the point of demarcation for doing business in the US is NSF and UL certification..your thoughts?
We make it a requirement. You have to have those agency certifications for membership. When we changed the roles and we allowed non-North American companies into NAFEM, I think the members thought the flood gates were going to open and the foreigners for a lack of a better way to put it were going to overtake the association. It’s not the case because just like there are barriers for entries to us in certain countries, establishing distribution and setting up service. So we’ve never had more than 20 affiliate members.
Tariffs on imported goods have become a big issue. How will that be reflected on the NAFEM show floor in Orlando?
I don’t think it will have any impact on the show floor. However, the next round of retaliatory tariffs are supposed to hit the first week of January, so that could change some things.
I cringe on Fridays because it seems like on Fridays that’s when things happen and things change. I do know from the meeting I was at last week that the general feeling on the Hill is that everything with China is going to get resolved.
You’ve been doing this long enough to see generations of folks retire and move on. I’m interested in your thoughts on how we are going to attract a next generation of equipment and supply professionals.
It’s a huge challenge. We’re talking about people, who can fill a number of different types of skills, Our industry has opportunities with people who have IT related skills, and project management skills, and design capabilities. Whatever your particular interest you can find it in this industry. NAFEM has a couple of things underway that are pretty exciting. So we have piloted a program with Sinclair Community College in Dayton and our members have done this too. To create a program and sort of a playbook that we can hand to members to say, here’s a great way to interact with your local community college.
Can you talk about NAFEM’s subsidy program that pays for buyers to attend the show?
Our planning committee chose only to offer subsidies to industry professionals that had never attended a NAEFM show before. So we will have about 350 new folks coming to their first NAFEM show.