The Food Industry Needs a Blockbuster Show

Oct. 2, 2009
Don’t stop at Process Expo’s pairing with the IFT show; add the former FMI Supermarket Show and reap the PR benefits.

Starting next year, the Food Processing Suppliers Assn. (FPSA) will co-locate its Process Expo with the Institute of Food Technologists’ IFT Food Expo. That’s not the most natural of pairings, and the arrangement was born a little out of desperation from both associations. But the more I considered it, the more I thought it actually represents just two-thirds of what should be the ideal food industry show.

IFT seems to be struggling with dwindling attendance at its summertime annual meeting and expo. The show always does well in Chicago. The 2007 event there drew 23,296, the second biggest IFT ever. But the following year in New Orleans it drew only about 15,000 (a turnout for which I can’t forgive prospective attendees – New Orleans, as much as the show, needed your support). About the same number attended this past June in Anaheim. Next year’s show will be back in Chicago.

Process Expo has been a poor stepchild for some time, never to my recollection standing on its own but pairing up with first the dairy association and most recently with the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) and its huge Pack Expo. Maybe as you read this, the last combined Pack Expo/Process Expo will occur in Las Vegas. The iciness of the co-located shows should be a welcome relief from Sin City’s heat.

Not being an insider, I was unaware of any great tensions between FPSA and PMMI. But the previous combined expo – in Chicago in November 2008 – showed who was in charge. Pack Expo has the enviable problem of outgrowing most convention centers in this country. Pack Expo alone took up all of McCormick Place’s north, south and east halls. Which left Process Expo in the new west hall – several blocks away from Pack Expo’s main action, although connected by a mile or so of hallways, escalators and skybridges. If you’re familiar with McCormick Place, you know what I’m talking about.

Overall attendance at the combined shows was a healthy 44,115 (68,000 counting exhibitors and others), remarkable since it came during the nadir of the recession. But you couldn’t tell it from the Process Expo side. You could have shot a cannon through that west hall without hitting anyone. Process equipment exhibitors were not happy.

The only option would have been to give Process Expo space in the north or south halls, the epicenter of the “new” McCormick Place. That would have shipped many PMMI members out to the hinterlands of the west hall. Imagine those complaints.

Enter the new bedfellow: IFT. FPSA officials say they never really fit in with the diverse end-product/application mix of Pack Expo – everything from pharmaceuticals to automotive parts. How they’ll fit in with the lab coat-wearing members of IFT remains to be seen, but at least they’ll be in with people who understand food.

As worrisome as the dwindling attendance figures are, a bigger impact comes from exhibitors, who say the shows are too expensive. Several of the biggest exhibitors at past IFT shows – food ingredient companies that took up a square block of real estate – took a pass on this year’s show.

And that’s a shame because the food industry, diverse as it is, deserves a blockbuster annual show. A showcase for new technologies, be they ingredients or equipment, and a technical program to match. I hope the no-shows of the past year were due to the recession (and that the worst is over) rather than the result of some mindset that “if we can’t be the biggest, if we can’t at least outdo what we did last year, we’re not exhibiting at all.”

Why not roll in the Food Marketing Institute’s former Supermarket Show? The attendees were grocers and the exhibitors were you – Nestle, Tyson, Pepsico, Kraft, etc. I realize there would be two diverse attendee lists, one from the food processing industry and one from the grocery industry. And the food company teams will have to do double-duty, walking the technology shows one hour and performing booth duty the next. But it would be glorious to have the whole food industry – ingredients, process and products – under the same roof. Imagine the cross-functional learning. And it couldn’t hurt to have food & beverage executives rub elbows with retailers.

At the very least, the old FMI show generated a lot of good publicity for the food industry. It was the obvious time of the year for many local newspapers and TV stations to report the “golly, look at all these fun new food products” stories. The fascinating content you see on Food Network’s “Unwrapped.” Not the stuff in “Fast Food Nation” and “Food Inc.”

That alone ought to make such a show worthwhile.

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