The new crop of business cards yielded by another trade show season have been duly filed away. But the big question remains. Were the three days at FIE followed, for many, by another three at SupplySide West, really worth the blisters, the jet lag, and the not inconsiderable expense?
Nowadays a face-to-face meeting with an associate overseas does not necessarily mean hopping on a plane. Video conferencing means a meeting can now take place through the medium of a screen. But is it any substitute for pressing the flesh, and having all your key contacts in the same place at the same time? For us journalists, there's no question that trade shows give an injection of enthusiasm for our metier. Most of our year-round interviewing takes place on the phone, but meeting executives in a physical context does, without a doubt, take our coverage to a new level. Every year the organisers declare a better turn out than ever before. SupplySide saw some 8,100 visitors this year, with 11 per cent more exhibitors. Final figures for FIE are yet to be released, but they are expected to reflect an increase on the 2005 edition. What about the exhibitors, many of whom spend vast sums creating eye-catching booths and transporting an army of staff to man them? Many of the people we visited said they had had no time to walk the floor, being tied to their booths fielding enquiries. The fact that they have a steady stream of visitors would seem to be a good thing - after all, the floor-walking population should largely be made up of buyers. But are they the right kind of visitor? One value-added ingredient company we visited said that 90 per cent of its drop-by trade was Asian distributors looking for bulk quantities of a commodity - way off the target audience for its highly specialised technology. Of the other 10 per cent, will the enquiries turn out to be serious and translate into a fruitful deal that will more than justify the expense of going in the first place? That is the million dollar question (or at least a few hundred thousand, one would hope). CMP, the organiser of FIE, is keyed in to the need to show relevance. It has said that over 70 per cent of visitors were upper-level managers - more than made it to Paris two years ago. Certainly trade shows are an important platform for launching new ingredients, and talking up their benefits. Increasingly, tips and tricks are being used to make people stop and take notice. Why not hire a chef to whip up edible creations, or a couple of actors to walk the floor wearing little more than the brand logo? The marketing jamboree is much more in action in the US than in Europe, where the trade show atmosphere is much more stayed and business-like. Even so, on both sides of the Atlantic, if you are going to be there, you want to make sure everyone who is anyone knows you are there. But what about who isn't there? The big flavour and fragrance houses are notable by their absence from the major trade shows. Firmenich and Mastertaste were there, but of Givaudan and IFF there was not a sign at FIE. Perhaps they feel they are secure enough in their reputation and marketing networks for a physical appearance not to be mandatory. Or they believe they are so well known that any potential new client will knock on their door first. If so, good for them. If you are not there, though, you don't know what you are missing. You could be giving the competition, or eager-beaver smaller players, a chance to grab the limelight. What if you are not so secure that your customers know you, love you, and don't therefore expect you to put in an appearance with the rest of the industry? Are trade shows, ultimately, built on the fear that someone will step in on your patch (wearing obligatory trade show comfy shoes, of course)? It may well be so, but there is more to it that that. Technology and virtual meetings certainly have their place in day to day business dealings, but they are no substitute for good old, traditional human contact a couple of times a year at least. You can get more done, more quickly, and race off to the next half-hour rendez-vous. Plus, when was the last time you clinked champagne glasses with an associate over Skype?
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com