Four Lessons from The Fancy Food Show

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  For the second consecutive year, the National Association for the Specialty Foods Trade held its annual convention in Washington DC, and we trekked down to the nation’s capitol to discover what’s new, hot, and happening in the food world.  The Fancy Food Show is home to 2,400 exhibitors showcasing 180,000 products spanning every possible facet of gourmet food and beverage, with representation by over 80 countries and regions.

After checking in and picking up my badge, the Press Room Manager said to me, “I don’t need to tell you about the show, you’re a veteran.”  She’s one of those people that I see once a year, but we recognize each other on sight, if not by name, and she does a good job ensuring that badge pickup runs smoothly and that I start the show in a good mood as a result.

Her comment made me pause.  Was this really my fourth time at the Fancy Food Show?  Had I finally learned how to pace myself properly, to keep from exploding in a mushroom cloud of chocolate, cheese, and olive oil?  After miles and miles logged on the carpeted floor of exhibit halls in New York and Washington, had I reached a point where I could speak of the experience with authority?  Maybe I have.  And maybe I should.

In the past, I’ve always written about the Fancy Food Show from the perspective of an attendee, but I’ve come to realize that many exhibitors, especially those who’ve never been to the Fancy Food Show, can be just as overwhelmed by the experience, if not more so.  Sure, you can get your booth set up, fan some literature out on the table, and offer samples to the throngs of conventioneers – but it can be so much more than that.

One: Build Relationships.  All Year Long.
Every year, about a week before the Fancy Food Show, my inbox gets bombarded with offers to meet and interview the founders, creators, and corporate representatives of exhibitors at the show. It’s all so flattering!  And overwhelming!  And…entirely ineffective!  Here’s why.

It’s too much information to process. Most of these emails, even from companies whose products truly interest me, go unanswered, because they’re in competition both with each other as well as with all of my regular, non-Fancy Food Show email.  To break through all of that noise and reach me, we need to cultivate a relationship prior to the show.  It can be a quick back-and-forth on Twitter, or an email exchange, something that reveals that a producer has at least read a little bit of my writing and has a hunch that their product is a good fit with the site.  The interviews that I’m featuring from the show floor this year were pretty much ad hoc, not staged or formally arranged prior to the show.  In each of these cases, the companies distinguished themselves as being outstanding in their field, and tasting their product made me want to learn more about the people and the stories behind the process.

Two:  Try To Look Like You’re Having Fun
Most of the exhibitors were really into showing off their products, and would readily engage anyone who came up to their table for a sample or some literature.  But with 2,400 exhibitors spread out over two floors of the convention center, attendees have an extremely limited window of opportunity to interact with companies.  If your booth was manned by just one person, sitting in a folding chair and checking email on their phone, chances are very good that I didn’t stop.  No big deal, because I’m only me, but that probably holds true for any number of major distributors and retailers looking for the next hot thing to stock the shelves.  The lesson to be learned is this – send your best, most knowledgeable, and most enthusiastic people to represent your company, without exception.  Grill them on your product, if you have to.  Role play in the weeks leading up to the show.  Emphasize the importance of the fact that the Fancy Food Show is not about babysitting the booth and refilling samples, it’s about winning the game of distinguishing your goods out of a field of thousands.  It’s not easy.

Three: Distinguish Your Product
This is probably the hardest goal to meet.  For one thing, you’re in a massive convention center filled to the rafters with thousands of outstanding products.  But, from my point of view as an attendee, I can tell you that it will be a long time before I’ll be able to try another Sea Salt Caramel anything.  It’s easier to stand out if you’re one of the first producers of an innovative product (black garlic comes to mind), but as breakout product transforms into trend and then becomes almost mainstream (like sea salt and caramel), it just gets harder and harder.  So, how did producers grab my attention this year?  By having great stories behind the products, and inspiring people who were driven to succeed despite initial setbacks.  Or people who just got lucky with an amazing recipe.

Four:  Please Step Aside, You Giant Annoying Waffle
As an attendee, I’ve already talked about having a narrow window of opportunity to experience as much of the Fancy Food Show as my legs will permit over a two to three day period.  So, imagine my consternation, when I’m trying to get from one end of an aisle to the other, and my path is blocked by a giant, wildly gesticulating waffle.  It’s one thing if your company has a huge pavilion, and you’ve got some elbow room to offer once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities with your WafflePerson.  But if you’ve got a 10 foot square booth, and your mascot is standing in the middle of the aisle, I’m not going to remember your product.  I’m just going to remember the annoying Waffle.