Winding down or revving up?

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Winding down or revving up?

The collapse of the FMI expo left a variety of resurgent conference and meeting events in its wake.

When the US-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI) retired its large Chicago event, FMI Connect, in late 2016 due to a decline in visitor numbers, a decision that fatefully coincided with the closure of the National Cable Television Show, the trade press poured doubt on the efficacy of live business events. But winding up an event that has been running since 1930 does not happen overnight, and in the wake of its closure the FMI discovered its legacy was to be a host of other MICE event formats.

Margaret Core (pictured), VP of marketing and industry events at FMI, arrived in October of 2014 tasked with redirecting event strategy. She was previously at the Consumer Electronics Show, which she helped grow, and then at the BIO International Convention, where she helped deliver 25,000 30-
minute meetings during the event.

“The branding was right, the event elements were right, the dates fine, we just didn’t have the density,” she says. “We could sell small booths, and the big booths were gone, just the buying teams were consolidating and weren’t using the show as a buying show.”

And so it was that after the June 2016 event, after the FMI’s board of directors backed a new approach while the show was still in the black, the motion was unanimously passed to retire the event.

“We crafted our retirement message, focusing on the fact that we believe in live events, but had fallen short with this precise formula of an event, and that we were going to be bold and nimble in what we do next,” Core says.

The focus soon switched to the portfolio of 15 smaller events run by the FMI. Core says that what worked for FMI were the small events specific towards professional titles. “Events like the Meat Conference which we had in partnership with the meat association,” she says. Core set about refreshing these events in an attempt to ameliorate the loss of the mothership.

“We had a couple of executive events, like the retail 20/20, the imperatives. We instituted a sort of think-tank event – Fresh Forward – that will happen in September in a cool space in Chicago.”

FMI also held a banquet at its signature event, the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference; a 1,100-pax C-suite resort-based event at which executives hold planning meetings with their major trading partners. Here the stage was given to major speakers, such as European retailer Ocado in January 2018, which Core claims led to a contract with US grocery giant Kroger. “We felt like we had a platform that could make that interaction,” she says. “We always wanted to be ahead of the conversation so we just wanted to make sure those conversations were in the right environment.”

In May the FMI followed this revitalisation of what she calls “the low-hanging fruit” with FMI Emerge, an online community. “We made a start-up plan within the association. Small manufacturers face a challenge to make it into the grocery environment, and to stay on the shelves in a healthy trading partner relationship.

“Education, communication, networking, investor connections and product discovery were matters of foremost concern to those smaller companies who had previously used the booths at FMI Connect to reach the bigger buyers.

“It was very important to make sure that this community had a healthy environment in which our retailers could find them.”

Time will tell if this online initiative effectively serves FMI’s community, but in the space of FMI Connect’s retirement, revisiting the format and role of targeted and specialist MICE events has ensured the association continues to serve its members.

Read the feature in issue 95 of CMW, online now: