Suppliers and distributors imposed travel bans to protect their workers’ health, not to mention everyone was working overtime to respond to the economic fallout from the crisis. Who had the ability or time to attend a food show?
Three months have passed, and the businesses that weathered the storm are closer to financial stability. That means food shows are making a comeback, albeit in a modified form. More companies than ever are experimenting with online tradeshows to support businesses during a pandemic without putting anyone’s health at risk.
Virtual tradeshows are not new. What is notable is how many companies are suddenly testing the format. If you’re the traveler for your workplace, then chances are your “trips” this summer and fall will take place over an internet connection from your cubicle or at-home office.
Pros and Cons
The virtual food show offers numerous benefits:
- Employees can participate for a few hours from the comfort of their own desk without spending days away from work or tapping into the travel budget.
- Exhibitors skip the labor of shipping food samples and supplies to the venue and setting up show booths. (That said, decorating is still part of a virtual booth. More on that later.)
- Virtual booths provide the visitor one-click access to company websites, contacts, videos, social media channels, point of sale forms, product ordering, wish lists and job postings.
- Vendors receive ROI data points that are impossible to measure at an in-person show. For example, while an exhibitor couldn’t measure how many associates leafed through the booth handouts on the flight home, they can count the clicks for those same materials at a virtual booth. Pageviews may even be broken down by the visitor’s name, allowing for follow-up with potential customers.
That said, several trade-offs come in having a virtual show:
- People cannot strike up a conversation with those physically seated next to them at the lunch table or in the auditorium. These chance encounters generate sales, spread ideas and occasionally lead to lifelong friendships.
- Technological issues like poor internet connections and user inexperience create communication barriers. Fortunately, the platforms hosting the virtual events offer live tech support to troubleshoot problems for end users.
- Attendees miss out on the biggest sensory experience an online food show cannot recreate: the tastings. Unfortunately, there is no high-tech workaround for this. The supplier and the buyer just have to work out a product order.
Same Activities, Different Format
The conversations people expect at a food show still take place; they’re just delivered in a digital format. The buyer roams an exhibition hall (some services offer a first-person view, others a customizable human avatar you guide through the room), stops at a booth, and, if they have a question, asks the vendor via webcam/microphone or instant messenger. Talking aloud offers a more natural communication experience. Exchanging IM’s allows both sides to slow down and think through their responses but also feels impersonal and formal, akin to writing emails.
Virtual booths still serve as the hubs for information and expertise. Appearance-wise, the booths lack tablecloths and centerpieces, but the exhibitors still spruce them up to attract “passerby.” Weeks before the show, the exhibitors upload their images and other relevant information for customers (noted above in the third bullet under Pros and Cons). Quality product photos and company logos are musts to display professionalism. Vendors also write a booth description. Strategic keywords make all the difference as to who stops at the booth, especially if they’re using a search engine. Companies are smart to lean on their marketing team’s expertise in graphic design and SEO when setting up a virtual booth.
Breakout sessions and keynote speakers, typical staples of conferences, transfer seamlessly to an online setting. Brave public speakers can opt to deliver their talks live, like a Zoom call. Those who prefer editing control over their presentation and wish to avoid glitches in front of hundreds of people can upload a recorded talk that people view on demand.
Some foodservice companies insist the virtual show is a short-term solution, a step up from canceling the show but no replacement for face-to-face networking. These companies are eager to welcome everyone back in person soon. Other companies might experience cost savings and higher attendance in the virtual sphere and permanently shift events online. Either way, this season is sure to provide show-goers an experience like no other.