Since IFT20 has gone virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic, the annual event and food expo won't have the tastes, crowds, parties, in-person networking and collaborating that people in the food and ingredient community have looked forward to for the last 79 years.
But with four different platforms melded together to create a virtual exhibit hall, networking, parties, scientific presentations, panel discussions and a trivia competition, those planning the event say it will be as close as it can be through virtual means.
"We hear IFT described as a family over and over and over again, and this is their chance to connect with people all over the world," Institute of Food Technologies CEO Christie Tarantino-Dean told Food Dive. "While it won't be the same, virtually we're excited that we're going to give them a lot of opportunities to have those connections."
With about 25,000 annual attendees, IFT is one of the food industry's biggest annual events. It's a highlight of the year for many, bringing together innovators, researchers, scientists and students for three days of learning, meeting new people and trying the products of cutting-edge food technology.
IFT20 — which was given the theme ShIFT20 before coronavirus threatened the in-person conference — is also the first big industry event that had its in-person component canceled with enough time to transition to a virtual event. Many wondered what it would look like, especially given that IFT has so many vital components that make it one of the year's more important events.
Just under two months before the July 12-15 event, some of those details are finally coming out. Registration opened last week, and there was a virtual meeting for potential exhibitors. Registration for the expo floor opens next week.
Tarantino-Dean said that registrations are coming in smoothly so far, though refunds are being offered on pre-registrations through June 5. Exhibitors who paid for booths before the conference went virtual had those funds rolled forward to 2021 booth payments, or received refunds on request. Those exhibitors do not automatically have booths in this year's virtual exhibit hall. Tarantino-Dean said it was important for them to see what the virtual expo would look like before locking in a commitment.
But with lower registration fees, no travel or lodging expenses, educational sessions that can be done more at participants' leisure and some of the same opportunities for meetings and networking, Tarantino-Dean is hopeful that IFT20 will be a success.
Here is a rundown of how the different aspects of IFT20 will be organized.
One of the more challenging aspects of IFT to transition into a virtual experience is the massive expo hall, where about 1,200 exhibitors show and sample their ingredients and technologies, hold thousands of meetings, make and solidify deals, and see what the competition is doing.
Corrine Calice, IFT’s senior director of knowledge and learning, has worked hard to create this virtual expo hall. And while it won't be as loud and colorful as Chicago's McCormick Place would have been, it will offer lots of information and in-person meetings and Q&A.
"Content you can put in a lot of different formats on a lot of different platforms, but engagement's really the thing that people come to a meeting for," Calice told Food Dive.
There are several packages that exhibitors can buy to build their virtual booths, Calice said. Those who buy the more expensive packages will have more customizable options, as well as capabilities for larger virtual meetings. All booths will be built on a page template and can offer different information for attendees to click on and read. There will also be a button to request a live meeting via webcam, so anyone browsing a company's information can have the opportunity to chat with someone there. And attendees can easily leave a virtual business card at any booth they want to know more about but can't get an on-the-spot meeting with.
"We hear IFT described as a family over and over and over again, and this is their chance to connect with people all over the world. While it won't be the same, virtually we're excited that we're going to give them a lot of opportunities to have those connections."
CEO, Institute of Food Technologists
For exhibitors, there's more than just opportunities to share documents, photos and video chats with attendees that come to a booth. Similar to the in-person show, they will be able to find attendees with targeted interests and contact them. But they will also be able to get a more extensive accounting of who looked at their information. At the in-person show, exhibitors scan attendee badges at their booths, though it's possible for someone to just take a sample or flier and be gone, or for people arriving at booths at particularly busy times to walk away without talking to anyone. The virtual system records everyone who clicks on a booth, creating a record of who was interested.
As far as samples go, there will be ways to get them to attendees, but the process will be less straightforward, Calice said. If a sample is requested, the exhibitor can send it to the attendee and then they will be able to have a video chat to discuss, explain and demonstrate it. Calice said IFT is working on putting together some best practice guidelines for samples.
The virtual expo hall also will allow the IFT show floor to live on well beyond the meeting itself. While physical booths need to be cleaned up days after they are set up at the in-person meeting, Calice said the virtual booths will stay active for six months. The buttons to request interactions will still work, though there will be no expectation that someone is manning the booth and available for a quick live chat.
Sessions and education
Before it became a virtual conference, IFT20 had already scheduled 110 scientific sessions and 750 poster presentations.
On the virtual platform, they are all still happening. Calice said they are all going to be pre-recorded and available to stream from the official opening of the conference.
There will also be five semi-live panel sessions about hot topics in the industry. The panels will be pre-recorded, Calice said, but panelists will be available for a live Q&A.
IFT20 will host a completely live hackathon on July 15 as well. Author Eve Turow-Paul will speak about millennials and Gen Z consumer tastes in food, and participants will work together to simulate a product development scenario based on what they hear.
Calice said there will also be some special guests available live during the event.
"We will be streaming some content, we will be recording some content, so it's gonna be a nice mix of delivery," she said.
Time for fun
Parties, social events, get-togethers and games are part of IFT every year, and this is no exception, even though it's virtual.
Calice said IFT is putting together a social events team to make sure that the same types of fun activities that participants look forward to at the conference happen this year. Many of these plans are not finalized, she said, but they are putting together ideas.
"We anticipate everything from a happy hour to trivia, ... maybe karaoke or a mixologist demonstration, that sort of thing," she said.
Each division of IFT members is currently working to plan its own parties as well, Calice said. And others may plan parties as well. She said the virtual conference platform will create a page with links to many of the get-togethers, which should work on any platform. So a party planned on Zoom can be found there, as well as a Google Meet or Skype event.
"Content you can put in a lot of different formats on a lot of different platforms, but engagement's really the the thing that people come to a meeting for."
Senior director of knowledge and learning, Institute of Food Technologists
The student college bowl championships are also migrating to the virtual conference platform, though Tarantino-Dean said it's taking a somewhat different format. Colleges usually field teams for the event, and they compete in regional meets in the spring. The winners of the regional meets then compete at IFT.
Since abbreviated on-campus semesters prevented the regional meets from happening, Tarantino-Dean said they have transitioned to virtual trivia competitions taking place online. Adults have also gotten involved in the trivia, and a virtual tournament will happen during the conference.
Tarantino-Dean said transitioning such a multi-faceted event as IFT to an all-virtual show has been challenging, but she thinks regular attendees and exhibitors will be impressed.
"I'm excited for when people can start to see the platform and get in there, because if they're anything like our staff team, when we got to see and tour around what the possibilities were, it's really very different than any virtual event certainly that I've participated in," she said. "We're excited and I think our members are anxious to try it out and see how they might be able to connect."