by Terry Smith
From the Editor: For a very long time blind merchants focused exclusively on their state’s legislation and its programs, and getting them to see the value in unified action nationally was much like the challenge Dr. tenBroek faced when trying to bring a small number of state organizations into the fledgling National Federation of the Blind. One thing that has helped blind merchants to see the value in working together nationally has been the BLAST conference, and readers of the Braille Monitor have been offered too little in these pages about the conference and the good it brings to our blind men and women who run businesses under the Randolph-Sheppard Act. Here is a report of the 2017 conference:
One doesn’t have to venture too far into the past to a day when blind vendors were not viewed as major players in the vending industry. Blind vendors had a tiny share of the market and were more or less tolerated by an industry that was evolving from mom and pop operations to large corporate businesses. Some in the industry even resented blind vendors because of the priority they enjoyed to operate vending facilities on government property pursuant to the Randolph-Sheppard Act.
The blind vendors who operated under state Business Enterprise Programs often lacked quality training, were forced to operate with outdated equipment, had little exposure to modern advancements in the field, and suffered due to a lack of leadership in the Randolph-Sheppard community.
But almost two decades ago, some visionaries in the National Federation of the Blind set out to change that. The Merchants Division had held small annual meetings for several years, but the leadership, the board of directors, and the blind vendor community wanted more. The idea was to have a national conference that would afford blind vendors the opportunity to experience the same caliber of training as others in the industry. “We wanted training that focused on business and leadership,” says Don Morris, a Maryland blind vendor and president of the National Federation of the Blind’s Merchant Division in the 1990’s. “We didn’t want to bring people together to complain. We wanted to bring them together to learn.”
With that, the idea of the Business Leadership and Superior Training conference, better known as BLAST, was born. Today, BLAST is one of the most recognized names in the vending industry.
Kevan Worley, a blind vendor from Colorado, was part of the brain trust that created the vision for BLAST and had ascended to the presidency of the Merchants Division by the time the first BLAST was held at Circus Circus in Las Vegas in 2002. He echoes Morris’ sentiments, stating that the goal was to offer training in modern business, customer service, and leadership practices. But there was another goal that was just as important. “We felt the need to strengthen the Randolph-Sheppard Program while building the National Federation of the Blind and using a national conference as the catalyst,” recalls Worley.
For the next dozen years, Worley and Nicky Gacos, a New Jersey blind vendor who was elected president in 2005, artfully managed the evolution and growth of the conference. A shrewd negotiator, Worley struck deals with state agencies who were anxious to bring BLAST to their states. Tennessee was the first state to offer financial incentives. Indiana and Texas followed. Worley and Gacos sought sponsorships from companies that were profiting from blind vendors and those that wanted to establish relationships. These deals with state agencies and sponsorships guaranteed numbers of attendees and provided a financial safety net that allowed them to bring in the caliber of speakers they desired.
What was the recipe used by the Worley-Gacos tandem that has led to such success? “It starts with a high-quality trade show,” explains Worley. He turned to his friend Gacos to lead that effort. “I couldn’t have done it without Nicky,” Worley says, reflecting on those early days and how far BLAST has come. Today, the trade show is the centerpiece of the annual conference. It features equipment manufacturers, product suppliers, service providers, potential teaming partners, and technology companies.
The second ingredient is quality training. BLAST brings in top tier speakers in the areas of business, leadership, and motivation. Whether it be a riveting keynote speech, a workshop by industry professionals, a message from a top flight motivational speaker, or a highly informative breakout session, attendees have grown accustomed to high quality presenters.
Almost as important is the opportunity to network. Blind vendors have a lot to offer, and learning from each other is a critical ingredient to the success of the conference.
Next, mix in something for the state agency staff. In 2002 you could count on your fingers the number of state agency staff in attendance. “How could we honor the work the state agencies do and empower them to continue that work?” Worley asked himself at the time. “We began an exclusive state agency roundtable which was a safe place where state agency folks could go to exchange ideas without any fear of criticism,” he continued. The numbers of state agency representatives attending BLAST began to slowly grow.
And, for the final ingredient, stir in a splash of fun. After all, the name of the conference is BLAST, so there is an expectation of having some fun. BLAST broke from traditional models of blind vendor training conferences and infused some entertainment. Lively music and other entertainment are staples of BLAST conferences today.
Business obligations led to Worley stepping away from his BLAST responsibilities after the 2014 Conference. He left, knowing that he and Gacos had created something special. But President Gacos put together a new team and was determined to continue the momentum BLAST had established. He knew there was still room to grow. Gacos didn’t change the recipe. He just added greater portions of each ingredient.
There are varying estimates on how many people attended the first BLAST in Las Vegas. It is safe to say that it was a fraction of the numbers attracted to BLAST conferences today. In 2016 in Chicago and 2017 in Nashville, BLAST set records with almost six hundred in attendance. The conference has averaged over eighty exhibitors in the last two years. State agency participation has doubled as the roundtable has expanded to become a full day of training, with eighty-five state staff in attendance this year in Nashville. In 2016 nationally known Navy Seal Leif Babin delivered the keynote address, and the National Association of Blind Merchants brought in the Disney Institute to provide a full day of its world-renowned training on customer service. This year the Michigan State University School of Hospitality did a half-day workshop specifically designed for those in the vending industry. And the entertainment piece has been amplified with the Blues Brothers rocking out in Chicago and country music impersonators adding a taste of Nashville tradition to the 2017 conference. There have even been comedians to make folks laugh. The recipe for success is clearly still working.
BLAST has evolved into the premiere training conference in the country for all blind entrepreneurs. One vending industry insider said the Nashville BLAST was the best conference of any kind she had ever attended. The Vending Times Magazine recently featured the Music City BLAST on its cover.
In the vending industry, BLAST is synonymous with quality training. “BLAST is a great event that brings together the entrepreneurial spirit of blind operators from every corner of the country to provide education and networking that strengthens their businesses and enhances their professionalism,” explains Eric Dell, senior vice president of the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), which is the national trade association for the vending industry. Dell is a regular presenter at BLAST.
“I am very proud of what BLAST has become,” says Nicky Gacos, president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. “We are changing what it means to be a blind entrepreneur by providing a quality training and networking experience and by elevating the perception of the blind in the larger vending industry.”
Nothing demonstrates the changing perception better than Gacos’ election to the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s Board of Directors in 2014. He is the first blind owner of a vending business to ever serve in that capacity. “It’s an honor for me,” admits Gacos. “But I represent 2,000 blind entrepreneurs, and it’s important to me to change the way the vending industry views blind people and what we have to offer.” He pauses and then adds. “It’s all about raising expectations.”
Eric Dell understands the important role blind entrepreneurs play more than anyone. “Many of the members of the National Association of Blind Merchants are NAMA members and participate in advocacy efforts at every level of government,” he notes. “Their participation is valuable and has assisted in creating advocacy successes for the industry at large.”
BLAST has been the driving force behind these changing perceptions and a greater appreciation for the contributions of the blind. BLAST originally launched as a conference for Randolph-Sheppard blind vendors, but that is changing. “We are expanding the tent to let more people in,” says Gacos. “We will never abandon our ties to vending and blind vendors, but we are designing BLAST these days for any blind entrepreneur.” He encourages any current or aspiring blind business owner to attend a future BLAST conference.
It isn’t lost on folks that this is an NFB function. “We always want to expose attendees to the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind,” adds Gacos. “The NFB changed my life, and I want people to see firsthand what we are all about.” The Music City BLAST in September featured presentations by John Paré and Gabe Cazares from the national office. First Vice President Pam Allen gave the keynote at the women’s breakfast. Second Vice President Ron Brown was on hand, and Fred Schroeder delivered a sterling speech at the luncheon.
So, what’s next for BLAST? Plans are already underway for the Lone Star BLAST November 13 to 16, 2018, in San Antonio. Having barely recovered from the Music City BLAST in September, Gacos already has his sights set on 2018. “It will be our biggest and best BLAST ever,” he predicts with great confidence. In the spirit of full disclosure, he says that every year, and every year he has been right. BLAST continues to soar to new heights.For more information about BLAST and the Merchants Division, go to www.blindmerchants.org.