- The Institute of Food Technologists is transitioning its annual event and food expo to a virtual experience, the group announced Monday night. IFT20 was scheduled for July 12-15 in Chicago.
- In a video posted to IFT's conference website, IFT Board President Pam Coleman said this decision was thought to be the safest course of action in light of continuing developments around the spread of COVID-19. The decision was made now to give food scientists, experts and exhibitors time to change their travel plans and shift gears.
- "IFT's board focused on a solution that provided an engaging, accessible and inclusive platform which will be able to convene our global community, enabling us to connect, to learn, to share knowledge and to advance the science of food and food innovation — a purpose that is more important today than ever before," Coleman said in the video.
For the last 79 years, IFT's annual event and food expo has been the place to see what's new and next in ingredient innovations, product lines, technology capabilities and research. Last year, the event drew more than 20,000 people globally. The annual show is a wide variety of new tastes, smells, concepts and discussions.
Transitioning that to a virtual experience is going to take some creativity. However, considering the vast number of canceled or postponed events ranging from the National Restaurant Association Show to the Summer Olympics, it is not surprising that IFT made this decision.
"It would be a disservice to the members of our community and the broader food ecosystem if we were to cancel IFT’s annual event in its entirety," IFT CEO Christie Tarantino-Dean said in a release.
The organization had already given this year's conference the theme "ShIFT20," which Tarantino-Dean told Food Dive was extremely apt. However, the website has few details as of now about how to make that shift work.
The very first virtual conference was pre-internet in 1993, according to Business 2 Community. The next big one was in 2007, and they have been happening since then. However, in-person conferences and trade shows have still reigned supreme. Physically getting people together has been preferable to reaching out virtually, and the social aspect of a conference is difficult to replicate. With a show like IFT, where conference-goers also get to taste a myriad of food samples made with innovative ingredients or use the latest technologies, there are some parts that will be lost altogether by moving online.
With the long lead time though, companies who normally make a splash with their booths at IFT have the chance to save some of that money and put it toward other priorities, like marketing or simply keeping factories running. Those planning to exhibit at IFT20, however, are not automatically receiving refunds. The group is rolling over that money into 2021 booths, unless the exhibitor specifically requests its money back.
IFT's advance notice represents a marked difference from one of the other biggest industry shows, Natural Products Expo West, which chose to cancel its March trade show as some exhibitors were setting up on the show floor. Time was not on Expo West organizer New Hope Network's side; the annual trade show was scheduled to take place just as the Western Hemisphere was beginning to see a large amount of COVID-19 cases.
Regardless of how IFT is being organized, a trade show with its long track record and reputation is sure to remain popular with the community. The annual event could undergo a bit of a metamorphosis and be focused more squarely on developments in science, and less on finding the best samples on the show floor. IFT offers many vastly different things to attendants, who range from execs to researchers to students to entrepreneurs to marketers. It will be a challenge to present a mix of online programming that will engage everyone who benefits from the annual show.
As many major conferences consider making the jump to virtual meetings this year, IFT could also set the example for the way to do it.
"Our membership and attendee base are innovators, right?" Tarantino-Dean said to Food Dive. "And one of the great things for working for an organization like IFT ... is that we get to work with innovators and they give us the space to innovate as well. So we're excited to see what we can do and work with our community to really change how we do business and use this as an opportunity to think a little bit differently."