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How to conduct a pandemic-proof trends tour!

In January 2020, I was in LA scouting 20 restaurants for a breakfast trends tour for a client and their customer.  We narrowed it down to 8 restaurants, and conducted the tour shortly after that, but before the pandemic shutdowns occurred.  We had 10 total participants and tasted over 60 dishes and then held an innovation brainstorm resulting in 40+ new product concepts.  It feels like a lifetime ago that we were all enjoying the LA sunshine, sharing food in a family-style atmosphere, shaking hands and giving hugs, hunkering down in a hotel conference room to hammer out great new product and platform ideas.

We had developed a well-oiled process to create custom, impactful trends tours and innovation workshops for our key connections.  Then the pandemic hit.  Fast-forward to today, and the idea of an in-person trends tour in a popular city like LA seems like something we may not get to do again for quite some time.

So how do we solve this challenge and create a pandemic proof trends tour, that provides inspiration, excitement, and new ideas to your R&D and Marketing Teams?  Here are a few ideas, whether you’re a supplier looking to provide trends to customers, or whether you’re a brand looking to keep your finder on the pulse of flavors, forms, ingredients, packaging and more:

  1. Define your objective.  A key to a successful trends tour is an objective that is specific, not general.  This is the same as before the pandemic.  The more specific you can be around what you are looking to learn about or be inspired by, the better your result.  For example, instead of making the objective “Breakfast Flavor Trends”, try – “Global Breakfast Flavor Trends made Portable”, or “Healthy Breakfast for Sit Down Experiences”.  You know your business well and where your pipeline may be thin.  Create an objective to bolster that area!

  2. Build your virtual team – locally and nationally.  Trends tours are a great way to bring together a cross functional team, either within your organization, or with your suppliers or chef’s council.  I’ve always found it to be a great way to get initial advocates for big projects.  You might be tempted to only have culinary and marketing as part of the tour, but please invite OPS, Commercialization, Supply, QA/Regulatory, and others!  All of us responsible for the go to market process like to be involved in the creative, up-front part.  Lastly, depending on the cities you’re targeting, recruit team members that may live remotely like field teams, or suppliers based in a certain city.

  3. Scout your restaurants online.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but even more important in the time of COVID-19 as so many restaurants have closed down, or have limited hours or menu offerings.  Find out who is open in your tour locations and cross reference that with “top 10 breakfast sandwich”-type searches.  Yelp, Eater, Google, and many other sites have great articles that will introduce you to new options.  Create criteria to narrow the options, review the menus, and get the list down to a reasonable number.

  4. Assign the restaurants and catalog your experience.  Here’s where things will be extremely different.  Normally you might rent a mini-bus and drive around to all 8 locations in one day with a runner ahead to make sure everything is ready for the entire group.  We just can’t do that right now.  So as an alternative, give 2-3 restaurants for each team member to visit over the course of a week, get take out, sit outside, or get delivery.  You can have overlap where some team members visit the same restaurants so you get different viewpoints on the same dishes or experience.  You also want to ensure it’s not too much work for one person.  Create a digital or paper checklist of everything you’d like the team to report on like item name, price, menu, location, service style, flavors, key insights or takeaways, applicability for your business, etc.  Take tons and tons of pictures!

  5. Create a fun share out.  Once all of your team has visited their restaurants, have them all fill out a similar template that is shareable in a zoom call.  It would be too much work to share out every single dish in detail, so make it top-line.  Share the restaurant, the dishes and the key insights you think are applicable to your specific objective.  Make this visual!  If you want to get really fancy, if there are one or two dishes you really feel everyone should taste, have them all order it for delivery the day of the share out.

  6. Ideate.  Once the share out is over, hold a virtual ideation.  This could be it’s own blog post!  There are a variety of great methodologies out there, but one tip I have experienced and think works well is to assign some homework before the ideation.  Have each participant write out five concepts towards your objective, and they can even have a sketch or inspirational picture.  On the ideation video call, go around the virtual room and have each person present an idea and then create builds.  Assign a scribe to get it all down or better yet record it!  You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll develop dozens and dozens of new products and platforms

The path to normalcy may be slower than we would like, but it doesn’t mean we have to forego enriching shared experiences.  I challenge you and your team to do one virtual tour, using the above framework as a starting point!  You will find it to be fun, challenging, and stimulating.  It certainly beats sitting on video calls all day!  Enjoy and reach out to let me know how it goes!


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