Our relationship with industry trade shows is a lot like our own personal dating relationships. The relationship is lovely at the beginning as each side enjoys a sort of symbiosis whereby, if all goes well, we seamlessly meld into the perfect couple with each partner’s needs being met. The whole is even better than the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately, however, that euphoria is often short-lived. Thanks to one partner’s sudden success or an upswing in interest from others, one side often finds itself outgrowing the other and both sides quickly find the relationship untenable. As it relates to how these now mammoth trade show gatherings view smaller, independent brands it’s best to paraphrase the 2009 Jennifer Aniston/Ben Affleck romantic comedy — they’re just not that into you.
As the plant-based sector has continued to grow exponentially — while the rest of the food industry chugs along as a tortoise-like pace — those of us in the space have watched as once negotiable industry seminars and trade shows have become unwieldy, expensive and more geared to larger, heavily funded plant-based food producers. The net effect of this shift has been a move away from innovation and the spotlighting of the latest hot products at these shows to more of a case of who can spring for the largest booth and who makes the loudest noise.
This change started occurring in conjunction with the first wave of large scale investment coming into the space, as well as Big Food entities such as Conagra, Nestle, Unilever and Cargill gaining a toehold in the plant-based sector. These companies now dominate these massive trade shows making it increasingly difficult for smaller, innovative companies to find quality time with retailers, distributors, investors, and the media.
When these shows began, they were events whereby startups and established brands debuted their latest hot new products in a setting where everyone was on a fairly level playing field. Certainly, some companies could afford larger booths but the gap wasn’t near as vast as it is now. As these shows have mushroomed so has the divide between the “haves” and the “haven’t yets”. What has also exploded has been the cost of entry for emerging brands, many of whom save up all year for their one chance to get in front of industry decision makers, only to find themselves battling for attention with tens of thousands of other expo attendees.
And it’s not just the cost of the booth. These behemothic shows often put a strain on local hotels, limiting availability and driving rates through the roof. Plus there are trade show booth “add on’s” such as electricity, carpeting, freezer space, food delivery and pick up, even trash cans. And even if emerging brands somehow secure an appointment with a retailer or distributor that person has to wade through thousands of booths and convention attendees looking for “just five minutes” of their time. It’s noisy, it’s unruly and for an industry who has prided itself on its mission to leave a positive imprint on the planet and all its inhabitants it has sadly become an unpleasant, pay-to-play cash grab.
What these shows don’t seem to realize is most attendees walk away from them bitterly disappointed, threatening not to return. Often times they watch as their small booth is dwarfed by both the heavily funded plant-based mega-companies and the cacophony of the entire trade show experience.
It’s time for a change. The plant-based industry desperately needs a reshaping. It needs focused events where everyone in attendance will be able to do business in a casual and informal atmosphere, far from the frenetic current trade show environment. As we mentioned earlier, Big Food is starting to grab hold of the plant-based sector. In a way that might not be a bad thing as their size, connections, marketing budgets and lobbying power afford the industry tools it never had to reach a far greater percentage of the world’s population. But ultimately it will fall on these “next level” and start-up companies, not Big Food, to be the real innovators in the space. But they’ll need to have the opportunity to showcase their cutting-edge products which will propel the plant-based sector forward. If we relegate them to aisle 496 in the back of Hall ZZ then we’re doing a grave injustice to all of us who care about the future of food and of the planet.
Each show, thousands of brands descend upon gargantuan convention centers hoping for the improbable chance to be noticed by the captain of the football team. Yet each year they watch as his attention is focused on the cheerleading squad, not on the girl on the bleachers.
It’s time to return the expo focus to the smaller, emerging brands whose sheer existence is incumbent upon a successful trade show event. If that doesn’t happen then the answer may very well be for these companies to keep their dating options open.