By Tim O’Connor
It all too easy to become entrenched in your company’s day-to-day operations. On any given day, there are enough problems to solve and deadlines to meet to keep any business busy till it’s time to close up shop. By focusing only on the present, organizations then tend to only deal with the competitors and challenges they already know – they risk being left unprepared for the disruptors and new technologies that will shape the foodservice equipment and supplies industry in the years ahead.
However, events such as the annual University of Innovative Distribution (UID) – which takes place this year in Indianapolis, March 8-11 – can break that narrow mindset and encourage distribution leaders to consider the problems they will face tomorrow and how their businesses will change to accommodate them.
“It’s very hard to take that step back and see trends and what we can innovate to lead our companies to that next step of success,” says Molly Alton Mullins, immediate past president of the Association Education Alliance (AEA), the consortium of more than 40 distribution associations that sponsors and organizes the UID in coordination with Purdue University. “By attending UID, you meet other participants outside your industry and hear that the challenges they’re facing are a lot like yours.”
Those interactions with other distribution professionals are just as important as the course sessions and workshops, Mullins explains, because sharing common problems can spark new ideas and solutions. Because of this, engaging others at the host hotel, the JW Marriott Indianapolis, is a valuable learning experience all on its own. The UID will build upon those naturally occurring interactions through additional networking events, such as a happy hour and a trip to an Indiana Pacers basketball game.
Now in its 16th year, the four-day UID event caters to wholesale distributors from a wide range of industries, covering common challenges, operational trends, and leadership insights. Attendees will receive a certificate of completion from AEA. The three continuing education units (CEUs) are pre-approved by Purdue and can be applied toward a Professional Certification in Innovative Distribution, which is earned after completing nine CEUs of course work.
To help its distributors and dealers achieve that goal, the FEDA Education Foundation has awarded 22 scholarships to employees of member companies. Those members will have their course fees covered in full, helping them to expand their professional development as they grow their careers.
Those scholarship awardees, along with the rest of attendees from FEDA companies and other industries, will learn from 33 UID faculty members this March. The faculty is made up of university professors, authors, consultants, and industry experts and they are encouraged to engage attendees through interactive learning. Many sessions will split up participants into groups for discussions or activities themed to address the various challenges that distributors face.
Creating an atmosphere that facilitates engagement is just one way that UID ensures attendees are getting the most out of the sessions – and learning valuable information that they can take back to their companies and then implement. “[The speakers] are not sitting there lecturing you for four hours,” Mullins notes.
For those that have previously attended UID, there’s sure to be something new to learn: 35 percent of scheduled speakers are appearing at the event for the first time. Plus, even those speakers that are returning to UID have updated their courses to reflect how distribution has changed in the past year as ecommerce and competition from online retailers continues to grow and new strategies emerge.
The program’s faculty members and courses were chosen after carefully evaluating past sessions and determining what lessons and topics are most valuable for wholesale distributors, Mullins says. As a result of those reviews, this year’s event will follow a brand-new course format featuring classes divided among six different tracks:
- Distribution strategy
- Leadership/professional development
Additionally, instead of choosing a single session they attend for an entire day, participants may now select half-day courses, allowing them to attend more classes that are specific to their job function. The courses themselves are also focused more on the kinds of skills dealers and distributors are looking to build.
“A lot of the courses I’m looking at are related to soft skills,” Mullins says. “The ways to be effective in sales have really changed and much of that has to do with ecommerce – the soft-sell techniques. On the sales side, we’re seeing a lot of interest because it’s a way for sales people to indoctrinate themselves with their customers and be a little different.”
Two sessions by Colleen Stanley, the president and founder of SalesLeadership, a sales development firm, will directly address those sales relationships. “Emotional Intelligence for Sales Success” will teach key emotional intelligence skills that produce hard sales results, such as emotion management, self-awareness, empathy, assertiveness, delayed gratification and stress management. Her second course, “Emotional Intelligence for Sales Leadership,” will further build on those themes and will demonstrate strategies companies can use to improve training and coaching skills by understanding and applying emotional intelligence to their sales-leadership role.
And, this year, learning won’t be limited to the sessions. AEA is creating a UID Yearlong Program that, in 2020, will include a series of four webinars presented by UID instructors. In 2021, the intent is to expand the program to include a podcast series to complement the webinar series and continue learning all year long.
“Our speakers agree that learning is not one-and-done,” Mullins explains. “We need multi touch points. Being able to participate in a webinar, listen to a podcast, and learn from outside the classroom enforces the learning.”
The webinars and podcasts are a prime example of how AEA, through UID, is working to build ongoing education that occurs even after participants have left Indianapolis. Attendees also have opportunities to start thinking about UID topics before the event: AEA recently launched a blog at aeamembers.net/aws/AEA/pt/sp/blog that discusses distribution challenges and offers solutions along that same six course tracks that will be offered at UID. Initial blog articles address topics such as digital distribution, developing a culture of innovation, building an international brand, how tech disruptions can give small businesses an edge, and tips to present with more confidence, with more to come.
A Complete Experience
For those interested in attending UID, Mullins recommends they look over the course schedule at univid.org and pick their must-attend courses. Once registered for those courses, participants can see what else interests them and then carve out time for other activities such as networking. By prioritizing the classes that are most relevant to their specific roles, Mullins says, attendees can ensure they will get a complete course experience.
UID registration is open through Feb. 18, 2020 and can be completed by visiting univid.org.