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BDB at IFT: Our 4 essential takeaways from the show floor

By Dr. Catherine Butcher, Executive Director – Integrated Services

B2B trade events with an overt focus on scientific discovery and knowledge sharing have always presented me with a dilemma. On the one hand, my background in immunology and applied microbiology means I’m irresistibly drawn to the science; the presentations, the keynote speeches, and demonstrations – anything involving enthusiastic experts exploring the very latest ideas from their field. Equally important and fascinating to me however is the marketing side of these events. Witnessing the trends in stand design, samples and handouts is endlessly fascinating, as is the opportunity to connect with our clients, colleagues, and friends from the worlds of trade publications, food production, nutritional science and beyond. In our recent visit to IFT First, an annual conference hosted by The Institute of Food Science and Technology in Chicago, IL, USA, we were on a mission: keep our marketing ‘hats’ firmly in place to observe the current and future trends shaping the world of food science, and as much as possible resist the siren call of the ‘Taste of Science’ presentation stage. With our minds firmly in trend-spotting mode, here are the four key themes that stood out for us and our clients at the show.

1. Bigger isn’t always bolder

If the booths we saw at this year’s event are indicative of the future direction of stand design, ‘efficiency’ will be the word to watch moving forward. Gone are the days of the ‘mega stand’ which takes up an entire corner of the exhibition hall. Now, not only are booths smaller in size, with a greater emphasis on the use of vertical space but packing as much visual interest and value into every square inch has become top priority. One of the best examples of this trend in action we observed was a small stall staffed by just one attendant, which nevertheless was drawing a consistent crowd throughout the day. Why the sustained interest? Simple; smart use of LED screens covering the entire façade of the small desk that made up the stand. These screens were not only eye catching in themselves, but also allowed for the use of a rotating line up of animations, helping keep attendees engaged even has they make their third or fourth lap of the expo hall.

2. Standing out in a sea of sustainability

You may have heard the phrase ‘sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’ cropping up with increasing frequency over the past few years, but a cursory glance over the exhibition hall at IFT showed this sentiment is now more fact than feeling. Every stand, large or small, made some sort of allusion to the company’s eco-responsibility accomplishments and targets. In conversations with exhibitors, the consensus was that one-time-use stands have been replaced by smart, reusable booth elements, which can be rebuilt and reconfigured event after event. All this eco-focus was incredible to see and reflects the amazing progress the industry has made towards the goal of a more sustainable food science future. But when everyone is ‘green’, can it be argued that no one is anymore? If on-stand sustainability is now the base line – an undoubtedly positive development – then the focus for exhibitors should be differentiating themselves from the ‘sea of green’.

3. Where two worlds meet

There was a time when the arts and sciences were seen as opposites, like chalk and cheese or oil and water. At BDB, we have always rejected this perspective as, in our experience, it just isn’t true. To communicate effectively in the B2B space you need both an in-depth understanding of complex scientific concepts, and the creativity to bring them to life for a broad range of audiences, moments, and marketing channels. It was incredibly exciting therefore to see that ‘creative food science’ was a key theme of this year’s IFT event. This was especially evident at the ‘Start Up Pavilion’ in which newly minted companies were displaying the best in cutting-edge science, often with an unconventional twist. Just some of the concepts we witnessed during our visit to the pavilion were precision fermentation of breast milk to produce ingredients for sports and prenatal nutrition, convenient, protein-enhanced oyster mushroom products and a new instrument for food pathogen testing that gives results in just one hour. This spotlight on scientific creativity could reflect the industry’s acute need for innovation. Segments are larger and more crowded than ever, meaning brands need to work harder to build and maintain market share. We expect a renewed focus on intellectual curiosity and a willingness to experiment with new and creative marketing plans will serve the food industry very well in the immediate future – they just need to be sure that blue-sky ideas are supported by robust science!

4. Samples! Samples! Samples!

Who doesn’t love a good on-stand sample? This year’s IFT event was notable due to the sheer number and variety of prototype products available to try; from functional ice lollies and ice cream to nutrient-boosted popcorn and hotdogs. Anecdotally, we heard from our contacts at the show that sampling is not usually such a ‘big deal’ at US-based trade events, so why such a focus on it at IFT? An explanation could be the trends towards smaller stands with more engaging content. Exhibitors are always striving to capture visitor attention, and in the absence of massive stand graphics one of the best ways to do this is by offering an actual ‘taste’ of something new. The opportunity to physically sample products also makes the time on stand that much more memorable, an extremely key factor given how much information visitors are exposed to in just a few hours at a trade show. No matter the explanation behind the ‘sample renaissance’, our trend-spotting minds (and tastebuds) would be more than happy if this became a regular feature at more US trade events.

Dilemma, solved

Our time at IFT was a truly eye-opening, mind-expanding experience even without a visit to the presentation stage. Supporting our clients, connecting with colleagues from the trade press in person and meeting a wide variety of fascinating professionals from across the industry was, as always, a privilege. Now all that’s left to do is get started on the tons of inspiring, innovative, and down-right exciting ideas that were sparked at the show – watch this space!

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