OIA Rendezvous offers insights on economy, elections and business trends

Now in its 13th year, the OIA Rendezvous, held Sept. 30-Oct.2 in Boston, continues to provide industry members with unique experiences and access to insights that they don't typically encounter in an outdoor trade show setting.

OIA Rendezvous attendees packed the bar at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel on Oct. 2 to watch the debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. As soon as the debate ended, many huddled around Ken Rudin, political editor for NPR, and peppered him with questions.

“Was it a game changer?”

“How do you think Palin did?”

Rudin, who had closed the Rendezvous earlier in the evening with an informative and humorous address, was excited and animated as he relayed his observations. “I don’t think it really changes anything,” said Rudin, noting that Palin held her own, but probably didn’t convert many doubters.

That moment in the bar really epitomized the OIA Rendezvous, held Sept. 30-Oct.2 in Boston. Now in its 13th year, the Rendezvous continues to provide industry members with unique experiences and access to insights that they don’t typically encounter in an outdoor trade show setting.

With the country’s debate raging over an economic bailout, attendees at the event this year seemed especially eager for helpful information concerning politics, the economy and their effects on business trends. And the Rendezvous served up plenty of meat to chew on.

Larry Locks, president of Aquapac, was attending the Rendezvous for the first time, and he said he was very impressed with the content of the conference. “Everything was professional,” he said. “The topics were very relative for the times and the challenges ahead for 2009. They brought speakers who addressed the issues from a different angle that attracted our attention.”

Presenters included global economist Clyde Prestowitz, who explained how the United States arrived at its economic crisis and expounded on the expected fallout. “The days in which the U.S. is the dominant power is going away,” he said. “We will go through a period of recession, and I fear there will be something more than that. It’s a global crisis.” Among other things, Prestowitz predicted that the United States would have to move away from an economy based on consumption and produce more goods.

While the economy produced much buzz at this year’s Rendezvous, the presidential election was the other elephant (or donkey, if you prefer) in the room. Dr. Jan van Lohuizen, President Bush’s personal pollster, offered his predictions on the election, saying, “If you look at the (electoral) map today, it’s an Obama win. There are high odds of a Democratic White House.” As for the Senate, he said Democrats would hold 56 to 58 seats after the election, and they would pick up 12 to 20 seats in the House.

Rendezvous speakers also offered up some intriguing ideas about how the sour economy will affect consumer behavior. During a lunch keynote address, Marian Salzman, considered a top trend spotter, said Americans will be pursuing simpler, healthier lives. “People will be fighting against all those things that have made us feel like gluttons,” she said, noting that people will avoid debt, eat healthier foods and try to get some rest. “Sleep is the new sex,” she said. “People are looking to be well rested to face another day.” One observation that seemed dubious to many attendees was her assertion that consumers would shun luxury brands. “There will be pushback against status brand names,” said Salzman, adding that people will want to be more modest and not “showcase” their wealth.

Still a key aspect of the Rendezvous are the many breakout sessions, with speakers offering insights on the “customer of tomorrow,” strategies for sustainability, challenges with electronic commerce, and how the store of tomorrow will operate. Perhaps the most highly anticipated breakout session was one concerning social media. Jeff Risely, a social media analyst, offered a detailed analysis of how companies could tap networks such as Facebook and MySpace to build communities around brands. Many attendees said the presentation was excellent, and Risely gave a step-by-step plan on how to approach the use of social media.

If the Rendezvous is meant to instruct, it’s also meant to inspire, and the first full day of the conference ended at the Boston Museum of Science where Robert F. Kennedy Jr. delivered a stirring speech on environmental and economic policy. He spoke about the barriers to alternative energy, the need for an “intelligent” energy grid, and the “need to build a marketplace that rewards good behavior — efficiency — and does not reward bad behavior — inefficiency.” What began as an impassioned speech touching on topics like river health, coal pollution and the coal industry’s destruction of the Appalachian Mountains, swelled into a fiery sermon. “We’re not protecting the environment just for the sake of the fish,” said Kennedy, “we’re protecting it for our own sakes. Because we recognize that nature enriches us economically and is the base of our economy…it enriches us aesthetically, historically and spiritually. And human beings have appetites other than money. And if we don’t feed those appetites, we’re not going to become the beings that our creator intended us to become.”

As is tradition, the Rendezvous also included a service project, and on the afternoon of Oct. 2, busloads of Rendezvous attendees traveled to the Stony Brook Reservation, one of the oldest parks in Boston. Working with the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, attendees worked to make the park more accessible to local residents, marking trails, repairing a fishing dock, clearing debris from a stream and clearing brush.

Though actual Rendezvous attendance numbers were not available, 344 people registered, which was flat compared to last year, said Scott Chavin, OIA’s director of marketing and communication. Seventeen percent of those registered were retailers and reps, marking an 11-percent increase from last year. Of those registered, 44 percent were manufacturers, suppliers and distributors, which was a 14-percent increase over last year. “We’re pleased with those numbers as they show a steady increase in retailers,” said Chavin. “And we had over 50 first-time Rendezvous attendees this year, which is a great indicator of how we’re expanding our reach to educate.”