As the industry gears up for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Show in Atlanta, it is worth thinking about the role these events play and how to use them successfully — both as an exhibitor and an attendee.
This is the 51st edition of the event, and the industry has changed a lot since its founding. Including changes that impact how these events can pay-off. Back in 1964, it was quite common for vendors to rarely see their customers; today it is common for people to have quarterly business reviews between suppliers and retailers. This tends to reduce the importance of trade shows because it means that key contacts see each other frequently. So what was a once-a-year event, now just becomes a fifth time a year to say hello.
Equally, on the buy side — presumably, during those business reviews — vendors presented upcoming products and service innovations, so the need to see things at an expo is dampened.
In fact, in response to these trends, some organizations tried to develop personal meeting alternatives to trade shows — where vendors meet retail prospects they don’t do business with and retailers meet new prospective vendors. These ventures have had mixed success in large part because the most important vendors already do business with the most important retailers.
If you look at the growth of business reviews and add in the ease of communication today — with not only email, texting, social media and business functions such as electronic data interfaces — and think about the ease of sending photos of new products and doing live video meetings, one would think trade shows would be dying, yet the food industry overall continues to grow both in number of events and attendance.
Partly, this is recognition that events offer a great efficiency. These events become great gathering places for the industry; indeed a fair number of those quarterly meetings are now scheduled around these trade shows so the cost of travel, in dollars and time, can be minimized. One vendor shared his internal calculations after he started exhibiting at relevant events and calculated that each event saved him more than $50,000 in travel expenses meeting both vendors and prospects.
Another key aspect is trade shows and conferences offer serendipitous opportunities that simply can’t be scheduled. The number of companies that were sold or purchased other companies, or picked up marketing deals, or got new valuable employees through unexpected meetings at trade shows and events is impossible to calculate.
Sometimes the benefit is off in the future. Business reviews and formal meetings are usually set up with active business partners, but who is going to be across the desk — on the buy or sell side — in three years? Nobody knows, but by engaging in trade shows and such events, one has an opportunity to meet people — perhaps in the same company or in other companies — so the person who sits down to negotiate with you in three years is not a stranger. For an exhibitor, just the fact this future buyer gets exposure to the brand and the people are of extraordinary value.
The fact is that for all the hard metrics that we do business with today, for all the systems that try to drive procurement to the low bidder or other objective criteria, the most important business decisions are still based on human perception of the situation. Human perception is heavily, and properly, influenced by relationships. If you go to buy a company and expect existing management to stay and run it, one’s perception of that management is simply crucial. If one is going to trust a new product introduction to a vendor, one’s perception of the credibility of that vendor’s promise is crucial and impossible to disentangle from the credibility of the person.
The big mistake people make in interacting with events such as IDDBA is thinking the business component — say setting up the booth — is all that matters. People underestimate what they lose if, for example, they abandon the official hotel room block to find some cheaper alternative. A big chunk of the value in these events is the networking effect of having so many industry people in one place. You want to stay in the midst of the action, because the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym, or on the stool next to you at the bar, or eating breakfast next to you at the restaurant may just be the crucial contact that will not only pay for the show but make your career.
This is also why it’s a big mistake not to have your whole team attending the workshops and general sessions, going on tours, etc. Of course, there is a valuable learning and the very attendance at these things makes one more valuable for industry members to interact with, but it is also true that the seat next to you on that bus, or in that session can make a simple workshop a life-altering event.
Of course, one can be next to these people and never say hello. Sometimes these people are not important now but will be in 10 years. Wouldn’t it be good to make friends now?
As we all head off to Atlanta, the lesson we should keep in mind is that when the industry gathers, opportunities concentrate and total engagement makes all the difference.