LAS VEGAS — In the face of an uncertain future, a sense of urgency animates the baking industry as it pursues an agenda to rekindle demand growth for flour-based foods, said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association.

Emblematic of this effort to put grain-based foods in an improved light was a heightened focus on finished product at the 2019 International Baking Industry Exposition.

In interviews Sept. 8 during IBIE 2019, Mr. MacKie amd Kerwin Brown, president and c.e.o. of the Baking Equipment Manufacturers Association, each lauded a greater focus on finished baked foods at this year’s expo.

Mr. MacKie said this year’s show stands “head and shoulders” above where the industry was three years ago. He credited Joe Turano, president of Turano Baking Co. and IBIE chairman, for leading an effort to “look at everything again” to upgrade the look and feel of the show.

“Everyone here is in the baking industry,” Mr. MacKie said. “Let’s bring the product in and highlight it. I think we put the product front and center again. More and more exhibitors have product on display. They may be selling a mixer or dough conditioner, but they are closing the story by showing the product and how it ends up being done. We’re fortunate to have product that sells itself.”

Mr. Brown said he has been dazzled by the investment equipment manufacturers have made in 2019.

“Walking the floor, the amount of equipment and the money our exhibitors spent on their booths, the design, the signage, the active elements, all of that is certainly at an all-time high,” he said. “The colors are bright. There is a ton of equipment.”

Impact of drayage

An incremental change in the fee structure for the show may have made all the difference in encouraging the investment in larger equipment displays. Drayage, what exhibitors pay to transport crates between trucks and exhibitor booths, was included in the booth cost for the first time in 2019. Previously the drayage fees were charged after the show, creating uncertainty about exhibitors’ final bills.

“We’ve talked about including the drayage for some time,” Mr. Brown said. “We finally got that done for the 2019 show. You never know how people will take advantage of that. They took big advantage of that.”

The increased tonnage of equipment created challenges Mr. MacKie concluded were well worth the inconvenience.

“We were a little delayed on move-in because we had 25% more trucks than we anticipated,” he said. “I know the team was a little up in arms, but I said, ‘This is a nice problem to have.’ It means the decisions we made three years ago were the right decisions.”

Major successes have been scored beyond the show floor, beginning with an expanded educational program, Mr. MacKie said.

“That was a huge strategic imperative,” he said. “The IBIEducate program is second to none. It’s the best baking educational program in the world.”

The A.B.A. is taking advantage of IBIE to address the group’s top priority for the past 1.5 years — the tight labor market. Mr. MacKie said the situation has escalated from “red hot” to “near crisis.”

Partnership with USO

As part of its efforts, the A.B.A. and the Baking Industry Alliance is working with United Service Organizations (USO) to showcase baking as an attractive career.

On Sept. 10, senior leadership from USO was at IBIE accompanied by representatives from Nevada and Washington Pathfinder sites.

“On the show floor, equipment makers will give them a sense of what the baking industry does,” Mr. MacKie said ahead of the tour. “If you talk to the average person, baking is what you do next to grandma. When they see the equipment, it will blow their mind.”

Other baking industry issues have taken on a heightened level of urgency, Mr. MacKie said.

“I don’t want to make this into a commentary on the president, but below all of that there is an administration that is disinclined to regulate, is inclined to cut taxes, reduce the regulatory burden,” he said. “The massive tax overhaul has been a shot in the arm for this industry.

“We continue to put points on the board because of philosophical differences between this administration and the last administration. Who knows what’s going to happen in November of 2020. I am no longer in the political prognostication business. But the board has really challenged us to put as many points on the board, in the regulatory space, that we can.”

Recommendations to guidelines

As an example of the assertive position the A.B.A. is taking, Mr. MacKie cited recommendations the baking industry is making with regard to the 2020 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The industry has suggested that seven servings of grains be recommended for daily intake.

“Rather than play defense we’ve asked for an additional serving of whole grains,” he said. “It’s a nutrient of need. Right now we’ve got six servings of grains; half are enriched grains.”

Longer term, the baking industry needs to ensure its products are aligned with the changing preferences of new generations, Mr. MacKie said.

“Packaging is a big issue to overcome,” he said. “It’s a barrier for Gen Z and millennials to buy our product. Would it help the industry to get in front of that group and say, ‘Listen, yeah, it’s a challenge, and we know that we are a part of that, and we want to be part of the solution.’”

Whether the answer is a fully compostable bread bag or a different approach, Mr. MacKie said it was preferable for the baking industry to address the issue itself, before regulatory bodies get involved.