Should I Exhibit at the Fancy Food Show? 6 Must-Haves

Like any small food business, I am asking myself the question. The Fancy Food Show is such a HUGE thing that you may be thinking that it is the sure way to be discovered by a large number of retailers and distributors. But when is it the right time?

After reading a number of articles on people’s experiences at the Winter or Summer Fancy Food Show (I’ll share those in another post), having interacted with the Specialty Food Association (the organizer) including submitting products to a SOFI award this year, and having attended 2 Fancy Food Shows (and a lot of shows in other industries), here is a list of 5 critical things that I believe a small food business MUST have/have done before exhibiting at one of these shows:

  1. You must have attended one of those shows, understand how huge they are, who is exhibiting, how companies are displaying and sampling their products, who gets noticed or not. That is a great way to realize that it is impossible for attendees to stop at every booth and test every product. Later, as an exhibitor, you will need to reach to attendees in advance, to make sure they stop at YOUR booth!
  2. You must already be clear that your product has the potential for growth. If you are selling only locally and have never sold to other neighboring states, you don’t really know if customers like your product because they like local products, or if you have a great product. So you don’t know your potential for growth. Buyers at the Fancy Food Show will also realize that you have have not established large enough of a retailer base. In such case, your priority should be to expand your footprint in other states than your own, and exhibit at more local events.
  3. You must have a clear goal for exhibiting at that show, and that goal must align with your growth plan. Do you have plans for your food business to self-distribute in a certain region? to export? to get distributors? to get into Whole Foods? to have your products on online stores like William Sonoma or igourmet? to grow your online sales? to be noticed and published by food bloggers or national magazines? As you answer those questions, you may realize that exhibiting may not be the best use of your limited financial resources, or that this show is not the best show to exhibit at.
  4. You must have the capacity to manufacture several times more than you are now. I have to say that I need to talk to more past exhibitors to understand what kind of sales increase they see after exhibiting. But if you make your products in your own kitchen, and have no room to grow, or you are at full capacity at a shared kitchen, it is clear that you need a plan to handle larger volumes, before you consider spending thousands of dollars on exhibiting. It might seem obvious, but I have heard of people who exhibited and won SOFI awards and did not know where they would manufacture. I also heard of a caramel maker who won a SOFI award and was even struggling to produce enough of its products for the show.
  5. You must have $8,000 to $10,000 in your marketing budget to spend on that show. Exhibiting at the show is definitely expensive. You can refer to the 2015 article written by the maker of Green Mountain Mustard, My Experience at the Summer Fancy Food Show (numbers inside!). The question is two-fold actually: do you have such funds in your marketing budget AND is it the best use of these funds for your business this year? If you have to drain your last penny to exhibit at the show, it doesn’t seem like a smart move!
  6. You must have the human resources to prepare well for the show, to man the booth and to properly follow-up with leads after the show. Everyone will tell you that the success of exhibiting at any show is to be well prepared: you’ll need to work with designers and printers to design, produce and pack the booth and printed materials; you’ll need to work with the Specialty Food Association to order electricity, furniture, carpet, organize shipping, etc.; you’ll need to reach out to buyers, and your customers, and the media, to make sure they are aware that you’re exhibiting, and set up meetings with them in advance for better success; you’ll need to have enough people to man the booth so you don’t miss on key discussions (most exhibitors feel that you need 2-3 people); and finally you’ll need to make sure you follow-up on leads after the show. I have seen too many exhibitors attending shows and then not following up on leads afterwards, due to lack of time and other priorities. What a waste of money that is!

So what are WE doing this year?

As you know, we are running a small food business ourselves (cheesecompanion.com).

We have a marketing budget of $7,500 to $10,000 a year. We are in stores all throughout New England. And we are working solo with no employee. So we cannot answer “yes” to all the questions above and we won’t be exhibiting at the Summer Fancy Food Show. But we have submitted some of our products for SOFI awards, and for the 2nd year in a row, we are attending the show. It’s fun to attend and it is a great opportunity to learn about new products and to connect with suppliers and with potential partners (at Cheese Companion, we do a lot of co-promotion with Vermont cheesemakers).

What about you? Have you exhibited or considered to exhibit? What are your thoughts about it? We’d love you to comment. Such feedback is so valuable for every small food business out there.

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