It’s been a year of reckoning for trade shows and the companies that rely on them. The food industry has illustrated that.
Make no mistake: the pandemic has left an indelible mark on industry events.
In the food world, it all started at Natural Products Expo West (NPE) in March 2020. Exhibitors and attendees had arrived in Anaheim, California, in anticipation of an annual event which attracts around 85,000 in the natural food industry.
On March 3 – two days before the kickoff of the event – it was abruptly canceled.
Everybody knew that 2020 would be a challenge as shutdowns loomed. The National Restaurant Association (NRA), which had recently sold its show to Winsight, announced on March 24 that its mid-May Show would not take place. Before long, all food-related trade shows in 2020 were cancelled.
The industry hoped 2021 would be different. The first half of the year was not, as Fancy Food, NPE, NRA, the National Grocers Association (NGA) and the National Confectioner’s Association’s Sweets & Snacks all canceled or rescheduled. The second half of 2021 was a mixed bag, as a few industry events, like the National Grocers Association Show, were presented live and in-person.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
What will happen in 2022 and beyond? Here’s my take on the future of trade shows based on 33 years of experience working at the Specialty Food Association:
I believe some trade shows will thrive while others will fade, based on the segment of the food industry they represent and how important innovation is within that segment.
In natural, specialty and up-and-coming segments such as plant-based, shows will come back – not initially at pre-pandemic levels, mind you, but strong enough to be powerful forces. Exhibit space may fall by 30% and attendance by even more in 2022, but they’ll gradually return to pre-pandemic levels.
Similar to the on-and-off restaurant rebound, people in these segments want to taste the foods and network with their suppliers and peers. Taste drives innovation and that can be best communicated in a live setting.
THE VALUE OF VIRTUAL EVENTS
While there’s much talk about virtual shows, almost everybody that I’ve spoken with over the past 18 months feels that they were a necessary evil and will not replace the trade show floor. However, virtual events will supplement or even replace much of the educational programming often presented in conjunction with trade shows.
Shows within the more traditional segments of the food industry, such as the National Restaurant Association Show operated by Winsight and the National Grocers Association Show produced by the Clarion Event Group, the fourth largest trade show company in the world, will be slower to rebound. These shows are more about networking and comradery than business and that isn’t as compelling a reason to exhibit at or attend an event as potential sales.
Then there’s the wild card. Comexposium, the world’s sixth largest trade show producer and the presenter of SIAL Paris, SIAL China, SIAL India, and other food events, has long been looking for a foothold in the U.S. SIAL Americas is scheduled for March 22 – 24, 2022, in Las Vegas, in partnership with Emerald Exhibitions. These powerhouses are betting on a return to normalcy for food trade shows.
Ron Tanner has observed and reported on the food industry for more than four decades, including 33 years with the Specialty Food Association. He currently serves as a senior advisor for The Food Institute.