While many trade shows have rolled out virtual versions of their in-person events, that option was never on the menu for the National Restaurant Association Show (NRAS). “We haven’t done any virtual trade-show replacement because we are an honest-to-goodness trade show that just doesn’t translate online,” said Mary Pat Heftman, vice chair of Winsight Exhibitions, which produces the annual event in Chicago. “We are probably one of the few groups that did not do a virtual conference or a trade show.”
Instead of making that pivot, Heftman said, the National Restaurant Association Show (NRAS) has focused on a “content-drip strategy” — a series of webinars in response to different aspects of the crisis the restaurant industry has been experiencing throughout the pandemic. “Early on, we were probably doing one webinar a week of critical operational needs that operators needed to understand, deal with, or adjust to during the pandemic,” she said. “And then we went to one every two weeks. I think now we’re probably doing one big content piece, a webinar a little more often than monthly. And it’s all related to how to help operators and suppliers deal with whatever and wherever we are with the pandemic and its influence and impact on the industry for operations and marketing.”
There has probably been no other industry that has needed to be as nimble — “bopping and weaving” to keep up with changing protocols and staying up-to-the-minute in terms of local realities and mandates — as restaurant operators during the pandemic, Heftman said.
In addition, NRAS has created “The Show to Go,” a “robust online community and resource tool” with exhibitor information, product resources, education, and content for the industry, she said.
“Over the past 17 months, the National Restaurant Association Show has consistently provided content addressing the shifting conditions of the pandemic in real time,” Heftman said. “It has been a critical lifeline for restaurant operators’ and suppliers’ survival. From when it was that quick pivot to everything being take-out and ordering and curbside delivery, how to retool your menu for the right kind of items that travel well, the right kind of packaging, the right kind of marketing. And at that point in time, there were a lot of protocols just regarding what had to take place in the kitchens.” Since then, the pandemic has necessitated other changes, such as limited seating requirements and outdoor dining. Through it all, “there’s always been an emphasis on food safety,” Heftman said.
The latest challenges for the restaurant industry include a shortage of workers — for which Heftman said there are no “magic answers” — and navigating the latest wave of COVID.
For instance, New York City recently became the first major U.S. city to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining. When asked if she thinks other cities will follow suit — and if that will be a good thing for restaurants — Heftman said much depends on what’s happening locally.
“Every city is going to have to take a look at what’s going on,” she said, factoring in such inputs as population density, infection rates, and hospitalization rates. The latest surge in cases due to the Delta variant requires restaurants to be vigilant — “attuned to a whole different set of metrics,” she said, and take direction from local government.
For now, Heftman has set her sights on next spring — May 21-24, when the National Restaurant Association Show will take place once again in Chicago. Even though there has been a recent slowdown with the Delta variant, she said, sales for the show have been pacing very nicely.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm to come back together and see product and meet with people,” she said. As for any new show initiatives in the works, Heftman said it all depends
“on where the world is, as we get closer. We don’t have to make those decisions right now. There will be new event areas and new activations, but in term of things that are related to COVID protocols, we’re going to have to wait and see where things keep going.
“It’s all TBD,” she added. For the NRAS, it would seem the “N” also stands for nimble.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.