I’m often asked if the food industry will ever get back to in-person events the same way they were before the pandemic. The question makes sense. After all companies were able to continue to do business with many employees remote. Travel budgets were slashed, and executives got used to not having that line item on their P&L. Customers and suppliers found a way to meet and taste products in a remote environment or in some sort of hybrid form. All of this was done, of course, with an eye on safety and minimizing the spread of COVID-19.
We all know that things have changed, but how much will be permanent? Do we even need in-person events anymore?
I asked myself those same questions on a recent trip from Boston to California for the Healthy Menu’s R&D Collaborative (HMC) which is run by the Culinary Institute of America. This is a small community of industry brand leaders and their supplier partners and commodity boards who get together to figure out how to expand healthy food and beverage items in their various sectors. I love this group for several reasons including the sense of community, a common purpose, great people, and the passion for amazing food and beverages. I’ve attended HMC both as a brand leader and as a supplier. There were a variety of great lessons and reminders that one could take from this event, beyond the specific HMC content.
The Hybrid Format Can Work:
This article is about the benefits of in-person meetings, although it should be said that the hybrid format can work. The HMC conference was a hybrid of in-person and virtual, with about 25 of us in a large auditorium with plenty of space and masks, and another 15-20 at any given time on the virtual meeting. It was very well run with speakers beamed in from around the world, moderated discussions, breakout sessions, outdoor meals, and even some time in the kitchen to develop delicious, healthy ideas.
There were opportunities for improvements as virtual attendees could only really attend the general sessions, although for those of us physically present, the setting was quite intimate which allowed for deep discussion about the key topics and speaker presentations.
The Importance of Great Conversation
Susan Scott, author of the best-selling book, Fierce Conversations, has a wonderful quote which is “The conversation is the relationship.” This is extremely well said! One challenge with the isolation of the past 18 months is the lack of casual conversations that you had in person during an event or meeting. Honestly, it was a bit rough firing up the small talk and initiating some conversations at this conference. On the first day, “What do we talk about now?” was a common refrain! Many of us even simply acknowledged that it was awkward and had a good laugh, but by the third day things were flowing much more smoothly.
Conversation is such an important part of relationship building with your peers, clients, and customers. Great relationships are the foundation for a strong industry network, and that network is how you get things done in this industry. In this case, I had to get back to building these relationships. Some had been on pause for many months, while others were very active over video conference and text. The opportunity to bond in person was so exciting and fulfilling on both sides. In one case, a colleague I had met many years ago when I was in R&D at a brand and they were a supplier, found that our roles were reversed! What a great way to learn from each other’s shared experiences and rekindle that relationship. That likely would not have happened unless we were in person together.
You Can Be More Effective In Person
The fundamentals are still key to success in business development. A strong network is important. I’ve read different sales books that state that relationship selling is not the best way to drive game changing sales. That may be true, however a lack of relationships and a strong network will be a detriment to your overall approach and to your career. So, you must work on both building a network and having a product that is differentiated and solves a problem for your customer. If you’ve done it right, you’ll be attending the right in-person event with the right people, following your strategy and roadmap for success, building relationships, and having fun while doing it.
In addition to the above, the sheer amount of direct work you can get started with various customers can be quite amazing. I know that the client I was attending the conference with took away multiple projects with various organizations, and the in-person nature of the event allowed for better, deeper conversations about key initiatives. Several times I heard something to the effect of “Jeff, while you’re here let’s talk again about XYZ and see if we can get that moving.” People are hungry for your support and insights. It is hard to beat that!
Knocking Off the Rust
One quick note to wrap up. Even for veteran road warriors, getting back out there has a ramp up period. It will be easy to forget all the little travel nuances that you were an expert at before the pandemic. For instance, I forgot my belt (how do you forget a belt?) and just told everyone it was fashionable not to wear one now. I’m not sure they believed me…
Realize it may take a day or two to get back into the swing of things and give yourself permission for that to be OK. Take it relatively easy, try not to overbook yourself, and leave a little time to be alone as you may have gotten used to it over the past two years. Then, when it is time to be in person with your customers, colleagues and friends, have a great time together.