The Food Event Dilemma: Should You Reimagine or Reschedule?

Are food industry events an inevitable casualty of 2020? Or is it possible to reimagine them (i.e., take them online) and still meet the needs of both participants and organizers?

It’s a tough call, especially in an industry so deeply rooted in relationships, sensory experiences and in-person events facilitating the two. The event dilemma certainly pales in comparison to the bigger foodservice industry challenges – from pure survival to closures, supply chain breaks and more. Still, it is something that food marketers will wrestle with into the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to deciding whether to reimagine or table an event. Each event and its mission and purpose are different. However, there are key considerations that can help bring clarity to your decision-making process.

Love It or Leave It: Transforming Signature Events

Binge-watching HGTV one weekend, it struck me that the foodservice event dilemma is not unlike the one faced by homeowners in the popular series “Love It or List It.” In each one-hour episode, a couple must decide whether to reinvent their current home to meet their evolving needs or move on – literally.

In the case of my client, the National Honey Board (NHB), we had to decide whether to indefinitely postpone or transform its signature, highly immersive Honey Summit for chefs. This year’s event had been slated for June 2020 at the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI). This was a magical place for a Honey Summit, as we experienced firsthand in 2019.

While we had already made our decision about Honey Summit 2020 at this point, it was interesting to see how the “Love It or List It” decision tree aligned with our evaluation process. As it turns out, the two were surprisingly synched. Both decision-making processes relied on a healthy mix of strategy, evaluation and instinct.

How to Decide Whether to Reimagine or Reschedule Your Event

Here are a number of legitimate takeaways from the “Love it or List it” formula that can help you decide whether to “reimagine or reschedule.” Because why reinvent the wheel when a similar dilemma presents a fitting formula?

  1. Go in open-minded. Leave your preconceived notions at the door in order to avoid blind spots to viable options.
  2. What are you trying to accomplish? What is your key event objective? Is it information sharing? Educating? Inspiring? Networking? Relationship building?
  3. What are your “must-haves” or deal breakers? Is there an essential aspect of your event that will be difficult or impossible to do virtually? For example, a cooking competition? Tasting sessions or sampling? Chef collaboration in the kitchen? Signature farm tours or dine-arounds?
  4. Evaluate the changes you’d have to make to your original plan and any compromises. Can you get what you want out of the reimagined version? Are you sacrificing essential ingredients by reconfiguring your event?
  5. Is it worth it? Analyze costs associated with the conversion, factoring in cost savings as well as new expenditures. Consider the platform itself, plus any technical/AV equipment or teams, shipping and more. Look at savings, including travel and lodging, as well as event space. Where do you net out?
  6. Enlist a team for different perspectives. Also survey key stakeholders, formally or informally, before making a decision. Which elements matter most to them? What are their priorities for participation?
  7. Ultimately, to keep your event on the calendar, the reimagined execution needs to be at least as compelling as the original. Nothing is perfect, of course. Count on inevitable glitches, online or offline, for that matter. Expect the unexpected; faulty internet connections may be the new rain on your harvest tour. What matters is the overall content and operator experience.

At the end of the day, after purposefully vetting your options, you will likely know in your gut whether to “love it or list it.”

Why We Decided to Postpone the Honey Summit

Applying this model to the Honey Summit, our decision ultimately came down to #3 – “must-haves” and deal breakers. While we could have creatively executed an interactive digital event capturing many of our desired elements (and we’d begun to map out some options), the one thing we could not have replicated is experiencing a beehive up close and in person.

Yes, we could have gone the VR or live video route. But in the end, there is nothing like bringing a group of chefs to an apiary, gearing up in beekeeping outfits, grabbing a smoker (to calm the bees) and witnessing honeybees at work in their awe-inspiring hive. We’ve seen how it changes minds, and ultimately menus. For now, we decided that experience alone was worth the wait. In the meantime, we would undertake other initiatives to inform and inspire the industry about honey and honeybees.

Indeed, we look forward to the day we can welcome chefs back to CVI for a Honey Summit. The action-packed agenda will include honey varietal tastings, honey innovation sessions in a world-class kitchen, a healthy heaping of camaraderie and, last but not least, an apiary tour hosted by CVI’s resident chef/beekeeper, Jamie Simpson. Until then, we will embrace the “pivot.”

More Foodservice Events Going Digital

One thing is certain, digital platforms are gaining traction as a viable alternative to in-person events. reports a projected 23.2% compound annual growth rate globally for virtual events from 2020 to 2027.

The Flavor Experience, one of the industry’s premier experiential events, recently cancelled its annual conference in Newport Beach, California. However, due to overwhelming demand from operators expressed in a survey, the event will be brought back to life digitally in October. The same team, led by Flavor & The Menu’s Cathy Holley, is also facing the likelihood of postponing an emerging chains immersion that was to debut this fall.

“While the cancellation of large in-person conferences for the remainder of 2020 is understandable, the many uncertainties also make planning for smaller immersion events extremely challenging,” says Holley. “Even if gatherings of 50 or so are allowed, travel limitations and the merging of attendees from different regions present obstacles. Culinary ‘trend tours’ or immersions lean heavily on in-person and hands-on activities – nearly impossible to replicate in a virtual format.”

Kudos to the Trailblazers

We salute our fellow food marketers and industry groups who are paving alternative paths for events in response to COVID-19. We will likely “see” you in a digital networking room soon, at one of the many industry events moving online.

In fact, we may have already crossed internet paths with you at the Culinary Institute of America’s digital Menus of Change conference. The event reached maximum capacity the first week, with more than 600 registrants. As sponsor of the in-person event in 2019, NHB was able to participate again this year because of the digital platform. (Notable upside: digital events can be more accessible to industry members, due to time, travel and cost savings.) The 2020 content has been hugely popular and engaging, even sans traditional tastings.

We are all finding our way through these complicated times – with challenges both shared and unique. We consider ourselves fortunate to be part of such an innovative, smart and resilient community. Love it or list it, reimagine or reschedule – whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong when you are true to your brand, your audience and yourself.

Here’s to finding what works, until brighter days.

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Andrea Schepke PR Director EvansHardy+Young
Andrea Schepke, PR Director

After serving as Managing Director in the Los Angeles and Chicago offices of Hill & Knowlton and supervising accounts like the Almond Board and Network For A Healthy California (5-A-Day) for Porter Novelli, Andrea joined us to take the reins of the National Honey Board foodservice account. Her strategically directed combination of events, media relations and advertising have helped create significant buzz in a very important market for our client.