With 2,000+ exhibitors and more than 60,000 attendees, the National Restaurant Association Show is one of the biggest trade shows in the industry. It’s a great opportunity to understand trends, discover new technology, test products and equipment, and connect with vendors and consultants. But it can also be... overwhelming.

As the technology and information systems director for Fig & Olive, a seven-unit restaurant group based in New York, it’s my job to find new technologies and implement them to help us grow. In my opinion if you’re not making technology your #1 priority at the NRA show, you’re missing the point. Why?

The playing field has been leveled.

At Fig & Olive we use technology to track just about everything we do in the restaurants, from taking reservations through OpenTable to tracking spending trends across all of our customers (both new and repeat) with Swipely. This year we are a finalist for an NRA Operator Innovation Award for the use of guest management tools in our restaurants.

But, great technology isn’t just for corporate hospitality groups and commercial operations anymore. Today’s tech offerings are priced to sell, simple to use and with cloud technologies dominating the market, they often don’t require any new hardware to start using in your business. Bottom line: restaurant operators of all sizes can now use tech tools to make managing their business a whole lot simpler.

How do you get the most out of the show?

The NRA show is a great opportunity to discover and evaluate technology options for your business. Like just about everything else in the restaurant industry, evaluating technology at a tradeshow is part art and part science. But here are the tried-and-true tactics I’ve used over the years to ensure I leave with the right stack of business cards in my pocket:

Before you arrive at the show—even if it’s on the flight or drive to Chicago—take some time to ask yourself these questions about your business. It will help focus your time at the show:

1. What drives you as a restaurant? Is it the food, revenue, a great customer experience, your unique location? Many things obviously contribute to success; after all, a restaurant that doesn’t care about food quality is not likely to bring many customers back, but you probably tend to focus on one area more than others in your business. Understanding your most valuable asset as a restaurant will help you know what kinds of tools to look for at the show.

2. What challenges are holding you back? Maybe you have an outdated POS system, or your food costs are too high. Maybe you need tools to manage your staff more effectively, or you’re having trouble attracting customers to your newest location. Whatever it is that’s blocking your growth or success, make sure the people you talk to at the show offer solutions that address your needs.

3. What do you want to take away? Beyond freebies, understand what you want to leave the show with and how to get it. If you want to make a buying decision quickly, you’ll need your calendar handy to set follow up meetings on the spot. If you need information to pass on to your team at home, make sure you have what you need to take notes. Whatever your goal, make sure it’s measurable so you know if you’ve achieved success.

Here are my tips for evaluating restaurant technology quickly and confidently. These tactics are great for a crowded showroom floor, but are also useful in guiding you whenever you’re faced with a tech buying decision.

Form vs. function: Sometimes the best technology comes in a less sexy package. Remember to evaluate functionality first and foremost, to make sure it’s a tool that will work for your business. Use these questions to evaluate function in five minutes or less:

  • Is the software easy to navigate?
  • Are reports generated automatically or will you have to pull them yourself?
  • Can you customize views and user permissions for your team?
  • Can you access the software from the devices you use most?

Find hidden gems: It’s easy to spot the tech companies already generating buzz in the industry, but lesser known companies could be developing the perfect solution to your business needs—you just don’t know it yet. Don’t pass up companies just because their name and logo don’t ring a bell. Added bonus: younger companies often offer better rates to get customers in on the ground floor, and as they grow you could be grandfathered in at a great rate.

Don’t get distracted: There are a lot of cool tools out there that can do a lot of things. But you don’t need all of them for your business. Dig past the trends and tie each piece of technology back to a real-world need. If you can’t do that, keep moving.

Integration is key: The single most important question you can ask a technology vendor is: How will this integrate with the systems I already have? If you’re like us, you’re already using a POS, a reservation service, a payroll system and programs to help balance your books. The problem is most of these systems can’t talk to each other, leaving you unable to figure out what’s really happening in your business. Technology that can bring these systems and data points together is worth its weight in gold. It will save you time and make it easier to focus on growing your business, not just managing it.

There isn’t one method for evaluating technology that will work for everyone every time, but these tactics have worked for me through the years. I hope they’ll help you get the most out of your time at the show and that, at the very least, you’ll walk away with a new understanding of how you could be using technology in your business.

Remember, it’s a long four days, so pace yourself. See you on the trade show floor!