They’re a long-standing staple of the food and drink industry, but they’re also a huge investment for small brands— are trade shows actually worth it?
Done well, trade shows could certainly be worth the investment for your small brand. But this completely depends on what your brand is, and why you went to the trade show in the first place.
One of the main reasons brands attend trade shows like Lunch! is to meet buyers and retailers. Small brands can invest a lot of time and money, which they simply can’t afford, focusing on trade shows, with the sole aim of getting in front of buyers.
But as buyer head-count becomes more and more squeezed, it’s getting harder for buyers to take a full day out of the office to visit the NEC, ExCel Centre or Olympia. It’s been just over a week since we attended the Speciality & Fine Food Fair, and despite being a long-standing and well-renowned event, even this show was comparatively quiet.
With this in mind, it seems wiser for brands to spend the same precious time and resources contacting buyers directly or doing something far more meaningful to standout for buyers.
Competition, coverage, and a great learning opportunity
Meeting buyers shouldn’t be the only reason you want to take your brand to a tradeshow. The Entrepreneur made a great case for the additional benefits of tradeshows, from getting a sneak peek at your competitors, to a chance at a bit of coverage in the industry press.
Rather than exhibiting at tradeshows, many people I know use trade shows just to create back-to-back meetings, knowing that lots of people will be there during those days. Often this leads to a similar outcome but with considerably lower overheads.
Choose the right show for you
Regardless of whether you attend as an exhibitor, or just as a visitor with an agenda, your efforts will be wasted unless you choose a show that is relevant to your brand. This completely depends on your product category:
- Lunch! demonstrates the challenger movement in the most amazing way. If you’re a food-to-go product then this show is a must, but otherwise, it’s much less relevant. Young Foodies have been to Lunch! for the last few years now, and we even hosted an episode of our Blue Plaster Podcast live from the event!
- The NEC triple whammy of the National Convenience Show, the Farm Shop & Deli Show and the Forecourt Show again can be hit-or-miss with meaningful buyer presence, so think carefully before investing money on an exhibit.
- International shows like Anuga and SIAL are great if you have the time and budget to attend: even if you don’t exhibit they can prompt innovation and NPD ideas. The Fancy Foods Show or ExpoWest/ExpoEast in the USA is like this on steroids!
Know your customer
Another crucial starting point when choosing which show to attend is knowing your customer, and where they’ll be. If your customer is airlines, then WTCE is the one to be at; if your customer is forecourts, then the NCS and Forecourt Show are the ones. There’s no point taking a scattergun approach as it just gets expensive, distracting and tiring.
Times have changed, and so have trade shows
There are clear trends affecting trade shows, and it doesn’t look good.
- Prices are getting insane. Although prices will vary, you can expect to use a decent chunk of your marketing budget to exhibit. Many small brands either can’t afford to exhibit or have to make a huge investment to do so, with no guarantee that it will pay off. With many small brands not willing to take the risk, the innovation and freshness that small brands can bring is often restricted in trade shows.
- Stall peacocking. Understandably, everyone wants their stall to stand out. But this only adds to the initial cost of exhibiting, as brands spend far too much money on stalls and time distractions. Small brands can be really susceptible to this as they are desperate to spread awareness. But unless you’ve got the money to purchase the best spot, or construct an entire building, at most trade shows you just won’t be able to stand out. This absolutely depends on which trade show you attend: at Speciality & Fine Food this year, many of the stalls were relatively similar. But even there, those who could afford it had clearly spared little expense.
- Fewer buyers. As I mentioned above, buyers have less time to attend, and many are discouraged from attending because they get overwhelmed!
A cheaper way?
Done well, trade shows can certainly have benefits for your brand. But these benefits are certainly not guaranteed to outweigh the growing costs of exhibiting. The truth is, regardless of what you’re looking for at a trade show, these benefits can be found elsewhere. It is also far easier to stand out when you aren’t surrounded by your competitors, who are doing exactly the same things. It’s no surprise that trade shows make a perfect “Where’s Wally” setting:
Put simply, if you can find a way to access buyers in ways other than a trade show, you’re onto a winner.
One of the reasons we created Young Foodies was to give small brands the tools and knowledge they need to access buyers both big and small, without it costing them the Earth. We’ve created a network where instead of fighting for the spotlight, small brands can support each other to become mighty. From helping you land a big retailer to connecting you with suppliers, and keeping you up to date with all the industry news: we’re trying to make life easier for small brands.
Not doomed, but desperate for change
We won’t see the end of trade shows any time soon. But if they are to preserve the status and prestige they have currently, or have enjoyed in the past, they need to adapt. The future is not that brands lug bits of wood across the country in the hope that buyers will potentially see them, as this is madness. After all the money and time invested in setting up a stall, there’s no guarantee that the buyers will actually see it, or then that they will stop and talk to you. All it could take is for the stall opposite to be more slightly more eye-catching.
Like most things, we’ve started to see some trade shows become more digital: most exhibitors at Speciality & Fine Foods were using their badge-scanning service. But this is just the start of the update that trade shows need. There must be a better way than glueing exhibitors to one spot and giving them only a few seconds to catch the eye of passers-by. Trade shows are a hugely overwhelming experience for all involved and are in need of a major update.
We need to fully explore the digital potential for these type of events, and I’m so excited to see what they can do. After all, this would only help to level the playing field for smaller brands.
(We’ve included links to all the trade shows we mentioned in this article, but we know how hard it can be to keep track of what’s happening, when. That’s why we’ve created a calendar for our community, meaning you can find all the information you need in one place!)
— — —
Young Foodies has created a community of over 750 small food and drinks brands, offering support in areas from talent, sales and legal, to operations and networking. We also regularly host events and post useful content — just like this — for small brands!