Every year, the Institute of Food Technologists' Annual Event and Food Expo is a crowded, colorful, educational, loud and tasty gathering of about 25,000 scientists, food and ingredients companies, students and business professionals.
Academics present their research to packed conference rooms. Researchers discuss their findings and new ideas over drinks. People just entering the profession meet with companies that could give them their first jobs. And mobs of formulators, business representatives, executives and media spend hours walking the show floor, tasting concoctions that show off the latest in ingredient formulation and technology. For a few days in the summer, IFT is the one place where the movers and advancers in the food industry all come together.
But it won't be like that this year. As the coronavirus threat spread throughout the world, IFT decided in late March that it would transform its annual event to be completely virtual. Given the vital importance of food science — especially in the face of a global pandemic — and IFT's long history of its annual event, cancellation was not an option.
IFT CEO Christie Tarantino-Dean told Food Dive they had been keeping an eye on what became the coronavirus pandemic since it first emerged in China late last year. After all, IFT has attendees from 90 countries, including many in Asia that were among the first to suffer hard hits from the outbreak. Tarantino-Dean and the rest of the IFT board wanted to ensure that the event would be both safe for attendees and beneficial for food science.
Considering that the annual conference had already scheduled 110 scientific sessions, 750 poster presentations, several social events and a show floor with 1,200 exhibitors, making all of it virtual is no simple undertaking.
"We recognize that we can't replicate the taste and the actual feel of holding samples in your hands and tasting them," Tarantino-Dean said. "But we are focused on engagement, and we have spent a lot of time the last six weeks or so looking at our options for virtual platforms to ensure that there are the opportunities for engagement, particularly for our exhibitors ... so that those connections can still be made."
IFT had no details it could share about exactly how it will be moving its event online just yet, but Tarantino-Dean said the virtual event will mostly happen July 12-15, as previously scheduled. Attendees will still need to pay for the conference, though the price and packages are not yet determined. (Tarantino-Dean said there were close to 2,000 attendees already registered when the event was changed to be completely virtual.) All of the presentations, sessions and awards that were scheduled will still happen. There will be networking possibilities. And, she said, there will still be a trade show floor.
As many trade shows go virtual this year, Tarantino-Dean said IFT is paying close attention to how others are putting them together. While none so far have the combination of events, sessions, learning and experiences that IFT is known for, Tarantino-Dean said there are best practices being formed at virtual conferences worldwide right now that it can implement.
Tarantino-Dean said the feedback from the larger community has been overwhelmingly positive. Several companies and researchers who count on IFT for new business, catching up on old relationships, learning what the competition is up to and gaining new insights told Food Dive that they still plan to participate and are enthusiastic for whatever this year's IFT will be.
Before coronavirus grabbed the spotlight, the theme for this year's IFT conference had already been set as ShIFT. Tarantino-Dean said that now, the theme is extremely appropriate.
"Our membership and attendee base are innovators, right?" Tarantino-Dean said. "One of the great things for working for an organization like IFT ... is that we get to work for innovators, and they give us the space to innovate as well. So we're excited to show 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."
What does a virtual trade show look like?
IFT has earned the reputation of being the premiere event for food ingredient companies and food scientists. And even though there are many unknowns about this year's conference, several ingredient companies said they are still ready to participate.
"I'm excited that IFT, with their new virtual platform, ... [provides us with] an opportunity for us to reach customers, still reach the IFT audience, but in a little bit of a different way," Allison Feriozzi, Tate & Lyle Food & Beverage Solutions marketing communications manager, told Food Dive.
Companies are currently trying to figure out ways to build the best customer experience they can without being able to get in front of others and hand them a sample of something made from their newest ingredient.
"Our membership and attendee base are innovators, right? One of the great things for working for an organization like IFT ... is that we get to work for innovators, and they give us the space to innovate as well. So we're excited to show 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."
Beneo, which produces functional fiber, carbohydrate, protein and rice ingredients, is still working on what it will do at a virtual IFT trade show, the company's president Jon Peters told Food Dive in a written statement. In the past, it has showcased its innovations at informational sessions.
"We are likely, though, to create access to nutritional and technical aspects, relevant consumer insights and market intelligence as well as to the many benefits that our ingredients can bring to product developers in the post-COVID-19 situation," Peters wrote.
Beneo has never done a virtual trade show before, and Peters said the company is keen to try out this format to keep connected to its customers, as well as meet new prospects.
Michael Buttshaw, vice president of sales, marketing and R&D for textured protein leader MGP Ingredients, told Food Dive he really likes the idea of IFT challenging everyone to make the virtual trade show work. While adapting to something like this may have seemed far-fetched even a year ago, companies have recently been doing a lot to make business work in the virtual space, relying on more video conferences, videos and social media to keep in touch.
While all of the companies Food Dive spoke to still planned to exhibit, they weren't sure exactly what that should look like.
While waiting for details from IFT, companies imagined what might make for the best virtual show. MGP's Buttshaw hoped for a virtual McCormick Place, where attendees can find booths that are interesting to them. At those virtual booths, attendees could connect with company representatives, find information on its latest offerings, see pictures and video demos of what the product can do, download fact sheets and really make a connection.
Tate & Lyle's Feriozzi said engagement opportunities are key. But, she said, it would be helpful if those opportunities aren't limited to the days and times the IFT show floor would traditionally be open.
"Having an on-demand option, I think, would be really beneficial," she said. "It'll help our participants manage their time and they can access all the information on demand."
In an email to Food Dive, Don Trouba, senior director of go-to market at grain company Ardent Mills, made a similar point. If the information that exhibitors put together for their virtual booths could be longer lasting, it would actually help this year's IFT displays go deeper and be ultimately more impactful. After all, no matter how quickly a person can go, there is no way any attendee can visit all 1,200 booths on the physical show floor. With fewer time constraints, attendees can get to more booths and learn about more ingredients.
But IFT will need to define how the virtual trade show floor will work. Peters of Beneo said that virtual booth visits are not as easily defined online as they are in person. A show attendee can walk by and grab a brochure and sample, or they can stop with the intent of having a longer conversation. The quick browse, the casual conversation and the long interview all should be explained so attendees and booth personnel can schedule and prepare, he wrote.
What gets lost at a virtual trade show
But the trade show booth is more than just a place to show what a company is doing. Buttshaw said that MGP uses IFT to connect with many of its global customers.
"We would have personal meetings and dinners with people from South America, from Japan in some cases, from Europe," he said. "Excellent meetings. Those are now are all being handled either through WebEx or Skype, or in some cases, just a phone call. And so it's not just even U.S. formulators or U.S buyers. You're also missing out on distributor relationships where you can build on those things — and sometimes it was just that once a year opportunity. So it's going to be hard to duplicate everything from a virtual standpoint."
"I would say it's more likely that IFT allows you the opportunity to continue to retain the contract rather than get into major bidding wars."
Vice president of sales, marketing and R&D, MGP Ingredients
Companies wouldn't quantify exactly how much business they tend to get at IFT, but they all said it's an extremely valuable show. Buttshaw said that IFT isn't always where they make the deals. But the meetings they can hold, the deepening client relationships and the personal connections made tend to sow the seeds for larger deals months in the future.
"I would say it's more likely that IFT allows you the opportunity to continue to retain the contract rather than get into major bidding wars," he said.
Ardent Mills' Trouba agreed that the lack of face time with far-flung customers was a big drawback of the virtual experience.
"Another downside is not being able to taste all the amazing food samples," Trouba wrote. "Stay tuned as we look into other creative ways to showcase our products."
Socialization and participation
IFT is also an opportunity for food scientists to share research, discuss problems and make connections.
It's always a popular event for students too. Bob Roberts, head of Penn State University's Department of Food Science, told Food Dive that about 30 to 50 students from his program go to IFT each year. Primarily, they attend to take part in the research paper competition, which is still going forward this year.
In fact, Roberts said, the virtual model is likely going to be easier on students than most other groups who attend IFT. Today's college students are accustomed to virtual learning. Most are doing it now, since the coronavirus pandemic has closed most universities fo the remainder of the spring semester.
It's also much easier on students' bank accounts. While there will still be a fee to attend, nobody will have to travel or pay for room and board. Roberts told Food Dive that until the conference went all virtual, the university was considering chartering a bus since Chicago is a relatively short drive from State College, Pennsylvania.
Where they will be missing out, Roberts said, is in the chance to network.
"Another area that's important for our students: Historically, IFT has been has a reasonably big employment operation," Roberts said. "There are opportunities for people to interact."
Penn State faculty members come to IFT for networking possibilities: presenting research, talking with fellow scientists and leading sessions.
Ody Maningat, MGP's chief science officer, told Food Dive that while he hasn't recently participated in any research symposia, many IFT attendees are scientists and want to know how products were developed and improved.
"The science side comes every time you interact with an attendee at IFT, whether they are students there to learn, or sometimes they hand you their resume looking for a job," Maningat said. "But more, it's really our own customers trying to understand the performance, and why a particular product is now giving them confidence to keep formulating as a source of fiber in food products."
"Another downside is not being able to taste all the amazing food samples. Stay tuned as we look into other creative ways to showcase our products."
Senior director of go-to marketing, Ardent Mills
But while a virtual show doesn't have easy networking options, it is easier for people to participate. The event doesn't have to be confined to a few days in one place. IFT's Tarantino-Dean said sessions and symposia for this year will be available on demand for a longer period of time.
"I could see a lot more of our employees wanting to connect and to see other opportunities, either on the virtual trade show floor or also learning opportunities," she said.
United Fresh also goes virtual
Even though IFT was the first major food trade show to announce a shift to virtual, it follows another one on the calendar. United Fresh Produce Association will be hosting its United Fresh Live show, which starts on June 15, online. About 5,000 attendees attend the annual show, which features educational sessions, networking and a trade show floor with about 300 exhibitors, Vice President of Marketing and Communications Mary Coppola told Food Dive.
United Fresh made its announcement to take its convention virtual days after IFT. But since its conference is about a month before IFT, the produce group has been working hard to get everything set up. United Fresh has held this annual conference every year for more than a century, Coppola said.
"We really felt it was important to continue to offer the value that gathering the industry each June brings to the industry," Coppola told Food Dive. "We really didn't want to lose that momentum, because for a lot of companies, that's the one time of year that they are building new business relationships ...and so to take that opportunity off the table was not an option for us. ... So pivoting to a virtual event, I don't want to say it was an easy decision, but it really was an easy decision for us because it meant that we could continue to deliver value and collaborate with the industry and gather the industry on an annual basis."
Since the announcement, Coppola said the association has been busy making the transition to online, shifting schedules, the trade show and the events. Everyone has been gracious, she said, and most exhibitors are sticking with the conference. The association is working with Intrado, a company that has done virtual corporate meetings, to move its show online. Coppola said United Fresh Live is the biggest event Intrado has worked with.
For exhibitors at United Fresh, they will get their own virtual booths, complete with landing pages and several options for information downloads, videos and live chat, Coppola said. They will still need to have booth staffing, and may want to send samples to those who have expressed an interest in meeting in order to conduct live demos in which the attendee actually gets product to sample. Coppola said she's done a few demos of the virtual booths with United Fresh board members and some exhibitors.
"They were pleasantly surprised and blown away by the breadth of what this can look like," she said.
Aside from being all virtual, one of the biggest differences with this year's United Fresh Live show is it will be free for all attendees. This decision was mainly driven by the turmoil in the industry caused by the massive shutdown of restaurant dining rooms during the pandemic. Coppola said this decision has impacted 40% of the industry overnight.
"They were pleasantly surprised and blown away by the breadth of what this can look like."
Vice president of marketing and communication, United Fresh Produce Association
"We really felt that it was going to be important for United Fresh to continue to deliver the value of content and experience, but not put up another barrier to participation," Coppola said. "So in making it free, we're allowing everyone who needs access to this information to continue to keep the industry moving forward, if they have access. And yes, that would be a big financial decision for the association, but we really feel that it's the only way for us to provide that value to the industry."
Since exhibitors still have to pay fees, Coppola wasn't sure how big of a hit the association will be taking from the virtual conference. However, she said, by removing the barrier of physical attendance, some exhibitors who hadn't shown at United Fresh recently are coming back this year.
Beyond booths, Coppola said United Fresh is actually looking for more attendees this year than in the past. Because it's virtual, more produce employees at individual retailers, plus others interested in the industry but without budget to travel, will have the opportunity to participate. About 1,000 people are registered so far, and Coppola said about 40% of new registrants since the event pivoted have never been to a United Fresh event.
While 2021 still looks like a year for in-person conferences, and both IFT and United Fresh are planning on holding live events, both Tarantino-Dean of IFT and Coppola of United Fresh said this year's virtual experiences are likely to change how those events are shaped and planned.
"Once we get through this June and learn what's working and how the industry is reacting to this type of platform, we absolutely anticipate that that's going to be a new integration into future business and future events," Coppola said.