Uncorking sales in a downturn

Corrections
CORRECTION ON 11/22/08 -- A story and photo caption in Friday's Business section incorrectly spelled the name of Jeffery Sherlock, regional sales manager at Bronco Wine Co.

OK, so it's not the best time to launch a product that relies on discretionary spending.

But like a gambler playing late into the night for that elusive big win, Mike Ciarlo remains undeterred.

Ciarlo, chief executive officer of Connecticut-based Poker Fokus, jumped the continent to peddle his caffeine-spiked gambler's energy supplement at F&B at G2E, the food and beverage component of the Global Gaming Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center through Thursday.

"We're in our marketing phase, and we want to market to casinos," Ciarlo said.

Poker Fokus was one of 100 exhibitors fishing for gaming industry decision-makers at F&B at G2E.

That exhibitor count serves as an economic indicator of sorts: The number of vendors appearing at the 2008 expo was down 20 percent from 2007's 120 exhibitors, though new trade show components featuring retail and entertainment added 65 exhibitors to the F&B area.

Holly Thomsen, communications director of G2E owner American Gaming Association, blamed the F&B slowdown partly on a shortage of new casino projects.

The struggling economy also means fewer dollars for trade show attendance, Thomsen said.

"We've seen gaming revenue across the country taking a hit," she said. "Consumer spending is down, and it's down in the restaurant industry in particular."

Jeffery Sherlock, regional sales manager at Bronco Wine Co. of California, saw a clear difference in 2008's F&B at G2E.

Plenty of interested people stopped by Classic Wines, but most weren't food and beverage buyers or managers. Rather, they were slot technicians, surveillance people and marketing staffers.

And while last year's show generated between 20 and 25 strong leads, as of late Wednesday, Classic Wines had ginned up just half a dozen prospects.

Still, F&B at G2E bore fruit for the company.

On top of collecting contacts at tribal casinos, which now have licenses to sell booze, the show allowed some image-building.

"This has been a really good show for us," Sherlock said. "There are lots of good people here asking questions. We have a massive operation, so it's good to educate people and get them involved in understanding the wine industry."

But two factors could force Classic Wines to abandon F&B at G2E and hit regional shows instead in 2009.

First, the company faces an additional $2,200 cost thanks to new rules from Aramark, the food and beverage provider at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Aramark is requiring companies that serve up spirits inside the center to hire a full-time bartender to monitor pouring.

If attendance in 2009 is as light as it was this year, the extra expense won't make sense, and there would be an 80 percent chance Classic Wines wouldn't return.

"We need to cross paths with people who are decision-makers," Sherlock said.

Al Brewer, manager of food service sales at Vancouver baker The Original Cakerie, said he also saw fewer food and beverage decision-makers wandering the aisles at 2008's show.

Yet, the company netted nearly the same number of leads this week as it generated during 2007's show. The Original Cakerie will head home with at least 110 "good" leads and a dozen "hot" prospects, Brewer said. If those contacts yield business at the same rate 2007's leads did, then The Original Cakerie should gain 10 or so new deals from F&B at G2E.

Those numbers would be good enough to warrant a return in 2009, Brewer said.

Because it's Ciarlo's first year at F&B at G2E, he couldn't give comparative numbers on sales contacts generated for the 18-month-old Poker Fokus. As of Wednesday, though, he'd given the show a thumbs-up for lead potential: "So far, so good," he said.

The reception has been solid enough that he plans to attend G2E Asia in Macau in June.

He's hoping to get his product, a Vitamin B supplement designed to help gamblers stay alert for a night of gambling, placed in casino gift shops. He also hopes to market it to dealers who need a late-shift boost.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

 

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