Observations from a Reformatted ISA Convention

ISA22 was held in Houston this week, which presented a considerably different event than pre-pandemic ISA conventions. Here, MDM's Mike Hockett provides a recap of the show and insights on what those changes looked like.
ISA 222 Hockett Recap

After three long years, the Industrial Supply Association was able to hold its first in-person annual convention, ISA22, this week in Houston with a new look and feel. A strategically smaller, more intimate convention than in years past brought 650 attendees — mostly of the C-suite level — to the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston, where ISA had a significantly higher focus on education and networking at the event that had been dominated by the expo portion in years past.

That 650 figure was down considerably from the 1,000-plus attendees ISA had at its 2019 convention, but the association made it clear that this was intentional, as a smaller expo setup — there were about 100 exhibitors at ISA22 — encouraged distributors and suppliers to send their key decision makers to the event to generate higher-level discussions than they sent only sales and product managers. Attendees I polled noted that “having the right people in the room” resulted in highly-productive discussions.

Throughout those three days, I tried to do as much straw polling as I could to gauge how attendees like the new format, which encouraged frequent discussion in the form of roundtables at the ballroom speaking sessions rather than rows of chairs. I’m happy to say the vast majority of the some 20 attendees I asked seemed pleased with the change and acknowledged that it indeed resulted in more interaction.

Several of the ISA22 sessions allotted time near the end for the audience to discuss the topics and lessons that presenters just learned about with others at their table. Even if many of those talks were among individuals from the same company, I thought it was a healthy exercise, allowing attendees to address pain points they’re currently experiencing in areas like labor, digital innovation and distributor/supplier relations.

Day 1 (April 11)

“Opportunity” was the word of the day on Day 1, which featured ISA22’s opening session. In recapping his top reasons why he wanted to lead ISA, Brendan Breen — appointed as the association’s president at the start of this year — emphasized the “tremendous opportunity” that ISA has right now as a source of stability and refuge for distributor and supplier members amid the barrage of disruption that they’ve faced over the past two-plus years.

Breen noted how he’s still able to draw mentorship from past ISA president Ed Gerber, who led the association for more than five years before moving on to become president and CEO of Summit Electric Supply this past December.

In a recorded acceptance message upon receiving ISA’s annual John J. Buckley Lifetime Achievement Award, Weiler Abrasives owner and chairman Karl Weiler emphasized how surrounding himself with talented people gave him and the supplier the opportunity to thrive and become the company it is today. His son and company CEO, Chris Weiler, gave an acceptance speech on his behalf on the ISA22 stage.

Monday’s opening session was headlined by veteran futurist Daniel Burrus, who delivered an engaging keynote about ongoing “hard” and “soft” business/economic trends and the numerous opportunities involved with both. He noted how elements that were seen as industrial supply disruptors as recent as five years ago — like e-commerce, artificial intelligence, remote/hybrid working and omnichannel marketing — are now opportunities in this market to gain market share and better serve customers in the ways they prefer.

A rooftop opening party encouraged countless mingling discussions for attendees as they enjoyed Tex-Mex food stations, margaritas and other beverages and served as a great way for me to meet a lot of industry contacts.

Day 2 (April 12)

Day 2 began with Bloomberg Opinion columnist Brooke Sutherland’s talk about “The Voice of the Customer” that dove into macro perspectives on a number of factors impacting the market, including supply chain disruption, M&A, inflation, sustainability and more. Later that morning, a panel discussion between Breen and Proton.ai founder & CEO Benj Cohen, Robex president Craig Francisco, Conexiom founder & CEO Ray Grady and Verusen founder & CEO Paul Noble dove into “Future Trends in Technology,” touching on emerging technologies that will impact industrial MROP companies and who stands to benefit from them.

Tuesday’s late afternoon session featured Arrival Elements CEO Tracey Yi’s discussion on how her company — an electric vehicle startup — relies on microfactories rather than a mega-plant like larger autos, and how such a supply chain approach could impact the transportation industry.

Like I noted earlier, these sessions included time at the end for the audience to discuss the outlook for these trends, technologies and supply chain setups with their tablemates and what their own companies hope to do about them.

MDM CEO Tom Gale and I ended the day with more mingling at the convention’s IMR Reception and Women in Industry Happy Hour, where I was able to have more productive discussion with new and old industry contacts that I’ll be happy to follow up with in the days ahead.

Day 3 (April 13)

Day 3 was all about the future. Future of Work strategist Heather McGowan got things started with her “The Workforce of the Future” session and the existential threat that labor — especially employees having more leverage than ever before — has put on all employers who must respond to this changing dynamic. Labor seems to be the top concern among distributors and suppliers right now — higher even than supply chain issues — so addressing this topic head-on was key for attendees.

Right after, Stanley Black & Decker North America Industrial/Commercial sales & marketing president Maria Ford and and McKinsey & Company partner Sinem Hostetter dove into the “Future of Sales & Marketing,” discussing all things omnichannel and sales strategies for distributors and suppliers and the digital-first engagements that customers will only continue to expect going forward.

ISA22 ended with popular economist Alan Beaulieu’s keynote on what the next three years will look like for U.S. economic growth, including a macro look at the industrial manufacturing sector. His overall sentiment was that these next few years look quite promising for the industrial supply market, which is poised for healthy growth that will come at a slower pace than distributors and suppliers saw during a bounce-back 2021 year. He also emphasized the need for distributors to cater to their increasingly Millennial-heavy workforce, including making them feel involved in the business as key to keeping them from fleeing.

As opposed to one large exhibit hall, ISA22’s expo wrapped around and into several smaller ballrooms.

A Model to Follow?

In-between all these sessions, ISA provided plenty of hours for the expo, which was spread across the Marriott’s fourth floor and wrapped around and into several smaller ballrooms. It created an interesting layout compared to the rows and rows of booths one typically sees at any industry convention, and, again, may have encouraged more lively discussion from a traffic-flow perspective. While most attendees I asked seemed to like the changes, a couple from smaller companies noted how they found it more difficult to get meetings with larger suppliers/distributors, whereas past years’ speed-dating meeting setups provided guaranteed access. But that was really the only criticism I heard. No format is going to please everyone.

Mike Hockett
MDM Executive Editor
mike@mdm.com

I think most attendees appreciated the flexibility that the open-interview expo model had. I’ve heard from plenty of attendees at various events that in the 15-minute speed-dating setup that many expos use — while efficient in guaranteeing many meetings — often results in attendees spending most of it talking about their kids or the state of their golf game and then the last 5-6 minutes becomes a rush to get down to business.

With this being the first in-person ISA convention in three years (and my first since 2018), it was undoubtedly going to feel different. But I was glad to see the association present a unique event in a market that tends to stick with tradition. While agendas for other in-person industry events for the rest of the year are pretty set, I’m now very interested to see if these events have the same look and feel they did pre-pandemic, or if these organizations emulate ISA in actively adjusting the format.

If you attended ISA, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on the new format. As always, feel free to contact me at mike@mdm.com or via LinkedIn.

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