Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Are Virtual Tradeshows
Worth It?

Pierre Jamet is the Head of Sales of Petit Pot, a premium French indulgent brand focused on appealing to dessert lovers who want to indulge in small, fresh, high-quality and organic desserts and are dissatisfied with the mass-produced and highly processed pudding that we all grew up eating. Pierre is passionate about the natural food community and a sales guru with over 10 years of experience working for startups in the CPG and Engineering space.

Over the past 12 months of COVID, all trade shows have been cancelled, rescheduled or they went virtual. Now, is it working out for the best and is it a smart investment for brands?

A Year of Uncertainty

It feels like ages ago that Expo West was canceled and the world shut down in front of our eyes due to COVID. A virus that most of us, candidly, did not anticipate would change all of our plans in a heartbeat: canceled resets and promotions, a huge panic buying with pantry stocking and high out of stocks, a gold rush to online, constant rework of the P&L and cashflow projections and… canceled tradeshows!

As a whole, the CPG industry benefited from COVID with most categories showing double-digit growth and sustained high consumption past the surge. Nevertheless, it changed completely how we approached the selling of our brands and products. No more travelling for every category review meeting and trade shows and a radical pivot to online resulting in back-to-back meetings and zoom fatigue.

To say that we were all disappointed by the cancelation of Expo West last year is an under-statement. While some brands made the tough decision to cancel their travel plans early, others were hoping for a miracle until New Hope officially canceled the show. It was a blow for all of us. So much work had been leading up to Expo: awesome booth designs, new brand refreshes, and new products but also so many networking opportunities, retailer, and investor meetings. I was looking forward to connecting with all my friends and peers in the industry, triple booking myself for happy hours and dinners during the week because this is how we all roll during the week of Expo! I remember seeing brands still setting up their booth and quickly pivoting to creating their own virtual tradeshow experience, embodying the extreme resiliency of our industry. Now, what was going to happen to all the trade shows that we planned for the year?!

A Pivot to Online

I was an early adopter of Zoom but I did not anticipate that it would become such an integral part of my work day. We do business with people and that human connection is everything. In addition, we sell new and innovative products that need to be held, tasted and inspected. Quickly, many in the industry boosted my morale by providing online networking opportunities and pow-wow sessions. For instance, Gary Hirschberg offered an amazing series of webinars called “Tales from the trenches,” which brought wisdom, guidance and reassurance that we will all get through this. Bevnet and Nosh took their coverage and support of our community to the next level with so many online events: Bevnet/Nosh live, Elevator Talk, Taste Radio episodes, Office Hours, Category Close-up, Supercharge events and many others. Also, the Startup CPG community became a place of opportunities and sharing of resources and knowledge. All of these organizations helped filled the voids left by the cancelations of tradeshows.

Virtual, Virtual, Virtual

I remember talking with my team about attending virtual trade shows and balancing the pros and the cons. I will preface this with saying that there are two main types: the Expos and Fancy Foods of the world and the distributor table tops shows (UNFI, KEHE, etc.). Thankfully, a lot of the virtual shows were very discounted which de-risked the investment in time and money. I personally enjoyed the shows that were the most curated and focused, like the Brand with Heart event organized by 7-Eleven. They really cared about catering a truly unique experience that resembled one of an in-person tradeshow but the real differentiator was their passionate staff. They made sure to connect with every brand present, “walk” every booth and ensure that we were all satisfied with the experience.

Anyone who has attended a virtual trade show will tell you that it is a huge time commitment and it is very easy to be bothered by constant in-flow of emails and calls. The only way to truly do this is to shut down every window and tabs on your computer and put your phone in airplane mode! I had multiple friends in my network attending distributor shows and I heard very mixed feedback. Many stated that they were not worth it and they just did not see the value of committing 2 or 3 days. As a salesperson, 2 days is the equivalent of 40 potential retailer meetings that can really change the course of the next 18 months to come. At the same time, a show can be worth it if you land even just one retailer for which you did not have a connection before.

So, are the virtual shows worth it?

This is a really personal decision. For me, I did not see the ROI for most shows, especially the distributor shows and I did not suffer from too much FOMO. I felt like I could do better with my time and leverage my network and communities like Startup CPG. To be fair, everyone has a different ceiling of what is worth it in their opinion but my point of view is if you can breakeven on the cost of the tradeshow and the time that you committed to it, then do it. An authorization in a regional retailer will usually be enough to offset the costs and hopefully you can get more out of the show, but I try to come with very low expectations.

That being said, after 12 months of COVID, I am starting to get antsy and I am seriously considering doing Expo West virtually. New Hope has invested in their platform to elevate the experience, and the investment just seems like a no brainer. If anything, you might as well put some time and money on the Holy Grail of all shows, right?! If you do decide to do it, here’s how to make the most of it:

  • Spend time leading up to the show mining leads, setting up times to meet with retailers, distributor reps, marketing experts, investors, ingredient suppliers and other service providers.
  • Publicize your participation on Linkedin, engage your network and participate in the Startup CPG Slack channel. It does not matter if the show is virtual or in-person. The only way to make it successful is to hustle and initiate those connections. If you stay passive, you can blame the organizer all you want but you did not do anything to make yourself a must visit booth.
  • It is important to understand the digital experience of a virtual show and improve your assets: sales sheets, selling deck, intro videos, etc. More specifically, imagine how you can create a virtual sampling experience, whether you send samples ahead of time or you leverage your time on camera to sample the product in front of interested parties. An alternative way to do so is to publish a video with a tasting panel (your family, a couple friends, a few colleagues).
  • I would also recommend enhancing your branded content on social media and on your website. Just like shoppers, we all love to google your brand and products, search for reviews, click on your IG stories and skim over your IG grid as well as go down the fascinating rabbit hole of Tik Tok!

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