Looking Abroad

Trade shows are a big part of the food industry. I met some of my best friends because we all frequent the same food show circuit.

This May we started at FMI and the co-located Spring Fancy Food Show, went back to Chicago for NRA, then on to Washington, D.C., for IDDBA and now to New York for the Summer Fancy Food Show. That doesn’t count a couple of distributor and retailer shows all in just two months.

The reason for doing these shows is obvious and persuasive – business is still dependant on human interaction. For all the continuous replenishment programs, EDI systems, and high-tech devices, the initial buy is always made by a person, and it is a person who has to deal with problems when they arise.

So knowing with whom you are dealing is crucial.

Sure vendors go to shows to sell their wares and buyers to find new products, but shows also serve other purposes. Reinforcing relations with existing vendors and buyers is key, as is the intangible benefits of walking the aisles to see what is hot. Exhibitors really benefit if they can schedule their booth duties so that the key staff gets a chance to walk the show.

And, in the food business, taste still counts.

As persuasive as the traditional show schedule is, sellers and buyers would do well to add additional shows – specifically shows outside of the country.

This is particularly true for buyers. Many buyers look to foreign shows as part of new initiatives by giant retailers to import directly. And, obviously, overseas shows are great places to start that process.

Even on the vendor end, there are strong arguments for foreign travel. Export is a growing opportunity and even those whose business is importing often forget the substantial re-export business, particularly in consolidating shipments to smaller markets.

But whether buyers or sellers travel to foreign trade shows is important for reasons that go beyond actual procurement. Even for those whose companies don’t import a box, they can go overseas and find products and brands that are not commonly available in the United States, and they can request that their own importers start importing the line.

For most U.S. retailers, domestic vs. foreign travel is wildly disproportionate to their product mix – especially in specialty food where so much product is imported. Not attending trade shows outside of the United States is like not attending trade shows in California or New York; it is a travel pattern not congruent with product sourcing.

It is also a travel pattern not congruent with a very interconnected world. Trends can pop up anywhere. Starbucks is a riff on the Italian coffee shop. And it’s a multibillion-dollar business that would not have existed without foreign travel.

Which may be the key reason for going; something about foreign travel helps one see things with new eyes. Yes, there are new products, new brands, new suppliers, new salespeople, but half the gain isn’t from what is newly presented but what is newly seen.

So where does one start? Well, as has been said, “We will always have Paris.” And indeed on this 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, a visit to SIAL (Oct. 17-21, 2004) is a fantastic place for Americans to start.

The show is unimaginably large to Americans accustomed to thinking everything in the U.S.A. is the biggest and the best. And the displays are done to a standard that no U.S. show is held to.

Unlike specialized American shows, it is broad reaching, so those who never get to a U.S. produce show, for example, will see loads of fresh displays. Pavilions are organized not just by countries such as you might see at a Fancy Food Show but often by provinces and districts obscure to most Americans.

You’ll see products that aren’t sold here, name brands that are new and name brands that are familiar but with whole product lines not marketed here.

First-time visitors to SIAL will know the freedom of really seeing a show. Trying to walk a domestic show that you can go to every year is a real challenge, as you inevitably wind up in long discussions with old friends, customers, suppliers. That is good; it is the reason for going. But it also uses up time.

There is something liberating about not knowing as many people. You can really look at every booth with open eyes; take your time to see the flavor of the food, rather than old friends.

SIAL is so big it will take every minute it is open to really see the show, but don’t go so far without adding time to see at least the city and hopefully other parts of France and the rest of Europe.

SIAL is a great kicking off point for international travel in the food business, but don’t stop there. It is a big world and to be on top of the food game you need to see the world. Even the SIAL people have acknowledged this and launched shows in Montreal, Argentina, and China. And there are, of course, dozens of other foreign shows to see.

The key is to open oneself to the whole world of food, to products not currently sold in the United States, to people not currently dealing with the United States, and most important of all, to ideas that are not the conventional ones in the United States. You might well find yourself with the idea for the next Starbucks.