While the pandemic continues to present challenges and transform the food and beverage industry, we’ve come a long way from the shutdowns and restrictions which made conducting business as usual difficult over the past two years. Despite labor challenges, virus variants, and supply chain snafus, traffic is trending back to restaurants, vaccination rates are rising, and opportunities for a return to some sense of normalcy are emerging.
Take industry events. Like every other aspect of our business, they’ve been forever altered by the pandemic and continue to morph in a dramatically improved but still uncertain environment. In another seismic shift to our business landscape, events have evolved in a variety of ways as a new norm takes shape.
A recent survey from the National Restaurant Association sheds light on the evolution of events in the food and beverage industry and the shifts in perception and participation across segments. A cross-section of prior attendees at The Food Group's Network at Nike event, including commercial and noncommercial operators and manufacturers, revealed a hunger for the return of in-person trade shows and conferences.
Of the 92% of respondents who normally have a travel and entertainment budget, 53% expect their T&E budget to be comparable to pre-pandemic levels, if not higher. And the majority who will attend trade shows and conferences this year plan to attend in person.
Meet and Seat: Face-to-Face Events Link Up with Virtual Formats
Virtual event options, which became a fallback during the prolonged period when in-person trade shows and conferences were suspended, may still be offered. But onsite events are overwhelmingly favored, with attendance rates poised for a major rebound. Eighty-seven percent are likely to attend large trade shows like this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in person, compared with 13% in a virtual format.
That said, virtual events still hold appeal and have established a track record of success that could signal the integration of some aspects of them into face-to-face formats. Fifty-seven percent of respondents who attended a manufacturer or supplier virtual networking event in the past two years were at least somewhat satisfied, and close to 20% were extremely satisfied.
As Ron Tanner, senior advisor with The Food Institute, put it: “While there’s much talk about virtual shows, almost everybody that I’ve spoken with over the past 18 months feels that they were a necessary evil and will not replace the trade show floor. However, virtual events will supplement or even replace much of the educational programming often presented in conjunction with trade shows.”
What’s more, given ongoing safety concerns over the persistence of the pandemic, hybrid virtual/in-person formats are expected to be a growing trend. Demand for safety measures at large networking events continues to be high, with hand sanitizer stations (65%), fully vaccinated attendees (61%), individual food and beverage portions (51%), and mask mandates (45%) topping the list.
Industry Forecast: Sunny Skies Ahead for Return of Trade Shows and Conferences
Marc Heron, senior vice president of strategy at Sparks, an event production company, thinks 2022 will be “a very strong year for the events industry,” with the integration of live virtual formats playing a key part and COVID-19 safety protocols remaining top of mind. “COVID is not going away,” he asserted. “We are learning to live with it. Mandatory vaccination and testing are keeping the event industry moving forward and opening up. Most brands, clients, agencies and show organizers realize the importance of complying with CDC guidelines and protecting attendees as best they can. This will continue for some time.”
Tanner forecasts that since they’re more focused on networking, “shows within the more traditional segments of the food industry” will rebound more slowly than those that offer opportunities for sales and business growth. He expects emerging and trending markets to spur event interest. “In natural, specialty and up-and-coming segments such as plant-based, shows will come back – not initially at pre-pandemic levels, mind you, but strong enough to be powerful forces,” he said. “Exhibit space may fall by 30% and attendance by even more in 2022, but they’ll gradually return to pre-pandemic levels.”
Though industry events may have smaller footprints going forward, with more contactless digital options and virtual integrations, one thing remains certain: the need for in-person engagement and in-real-life event experiences.
As Brendan Brown, vice president of strategy for even production company George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, explained: “The important thing to remember is the desire and need for face-to-face connection hasn’t changed. In fact, I'd argue the complexities and challenges all industries face these days demand it.”
The need for networking, connection, and community is sure to drive a resurgence in industry events–onsite, online, and both. Now more than ever, it takes a village in the form of trade shows and conferences to navigate challenges and optimize opportunities as the food and beverage industry enters a new era.
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