Editor's Plate: What Makes for a Great Trade Show?

Some are succeeding, some failing. You ought to go to New Orleans next month to make IFT Food Expo a success.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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It seems that "show season" is upon us. As the calendar starts to fill, I reflect on two recent shows and worry about one on the horizon. And I wonder what this all means, if anything, to the rank and file in the food & beverage industry.

To reduce this to bullet points:

  • What went wrong at the AMI Meat, Poultry & Seafood Expo?
  • What went right at Natural Products Expo West?
  • How will the IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo in New Orleans turn out?

Trade shows have had a tough time in recent years and – I guess to their credit – they've changed, tried new partners, venues and frequencies. Whether it's luck or smarts, at least one seems to have gotten it right. I'm sorry I didn't get out to Natural Products Expo West/Supply Expo in Anaheim, Calif., in March. But our Technical Editor David Feder went on our behalf and came back jazzed by the crowds, the novel products being introduced and the general upbeat feel at the show.

"The products on display at Natural Products Expo West this year evidenced a truly refreshing new energy on the part of food & beverage processors," he writes in a show report on p.17. "That energy rippled through the Anaheim Convention Center to the tune of a record 56,000 attendees, so all I can say is, keep building it and they will come."

Contrast that with the American Meat Institute's show in Chicago. Maybe April's still too early for conventioneers to enjoy the Windy City, but you could have shot the proverbial cannon down the aisles and not injured many attendees. Plus, a couple of high-profile exhibitors took a pass, which didn't help matters any.

It seemed AMI had a pretty good partnership with the International Dairy Foods Assn. in their biennial Worldwide Food Expo. I recall it being a lively and well attended show, always in Chicago in the tolerable part of fall, with attendance in the range of 25,000. That's no blockbuster, but it's pretty good these days. So I scratched my head when IDFA said after the 2009 show it wanted to stage its own, annual event.

Don't disappoint me...I know airfares are up, T&E budgets remain tight and everybody's working 50-hour weeks. The food business needs a blockbuster show, and New Orleans is the perfect place to turn that corner.

Those haven't turned out well. AMI stuck to a biennial schedule, but as a solo show, this year's effort fell short too. I talked to some of the exhibitors who said they were angry AMI no is planning an annual show, starting next year. Wise or not, that doesn't explain what happened this year.

True, next year AMI's expo will co-locate with the Food Marketing Institute's FMI 2012 Show, United Fresh Product Assn's expo and the U.S. Food Showcase, "bringing together almost 1,000 exhibitors and 25,000 attendees in Dallas" April 30-May 3. It's not just dicey going yearly; moving the meat show out of Chicago has people questioning it.

But there is safety in numbers. "Everything is bigger in Texas!" the promotions say. We'll see.

But my real worry is this year's annual IFT Food Expo. The show does great in hometown Chicago, but always seems to struggle when it moves to its three coastal locations. I have a soft spot in my heart for New Orleans, and I was downright angry at anyone who didn't attend the previous shows there. Not only is it a fine venue for a trade show, it's a great place for food especially, plus the town needs the tourism. IFT bravely predicts 18,000 attendees this June, up from 15,000 in 2008; I hope they're right.

Trade shows are an important part of this food & beverage industry. The better ones have a good educational track, not just vendor sales pitches, thoughtful keynote speakers and true innovation and progress in what their exhibitors are showing (I realize that's hard to legislate). Maybe most importantly, they offer the rare opportunity to build relationships with face-to-face contact. That's something every business can use more of. But only if both sides of that fence – exhibitors and attendees – show up in sufficient numbers.

IFT especially focuses on educational seminars, including some continuing education credits; that raises the whole food science bar. It has a laudable outreach to college students, who are destined to be your product developers one day. And wherever it goes, the society stages some charitable events, usually including a fund-raising morning run and help in stocking the local food banks. Especially these days, every big city has pockets of poverty that need that kind of help, and New Orleans remains particularly needy, still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

So don't disappoint me, food & beverage people. I know airfares are up, T&E budgets remain tight and everybody's working 50-hour weeks. The food business needs a blockbuster show, and New Orleans is the perfect place to turn that corner. I hope to see you in the Big Easy next month.

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