FHA’s New Virtual Reality: How One of the World’s Largest Trade Shows Pivoted to the Digital Space

FHA Match is a virtual business matching series consisting of sector-focused events serving players in the Food and Beverage and Hospitality sectors. Powered by Saladplate.com, each edition of FHA Match features AI-driven recommendations to match businesses, enabling new connections and opportunities across markets.

Martyn Cox, Event Director, Hospitality, Food and Beverage, Singapore for Informa Markets, talked to us about how the global COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions created new opportunities in the virtual world.

“When the pandemic hit last year, we were one of the first events affected,” noted Cox.

“We had to postpone two shows only a few weeks out from them opening. So, we spent the first six months of the pandemic dealing with that, rescheduling and supporting exhibitors.”

This time away from the physical shows allowed Informa to explore how the digital world was developing. Without committing to any one platform, the company attended various virtual events to see what was available.

“We learnt that digital can work well, but it’s limiting, you don’t get the same enjoyment you get from a face-to-face, live event. Fundamentally, a digital show isn’t something people are willing to spend a lot of time on. Unless it’s really tailored to an attendee’s specific objectives, they’ll just switch off.

“In a way it was like starting the business from scratch. Rather than just expecting our clients who traditionally attend our physical events, which have been running for 40 years, to simply jump on board, we needed to create a way for them to join us in this new venture.”

Cox and his team knew they couldn’t create a digital show for 10,000 attendees, nor could they do the same kind of large-scale event for the entire food industry they once had.

“We thought it would be better to separate the industry out into various subsections. For example, someone wanting to buy meat products would want to meet importers, processors, and manufacturers, but wouldn’t necessarily be interested in another food product,” explained Cox.

“We’ve all been on various webinars and virtual event platforms which are attempting to replicate the physical show experience by lifting an event brand as it exists in the physical world and putting it online. What we realised through various digital events we ran in 2020 and subsequent feedback from buyers is that in the digital space they desire a focused event that is tailored to their needs.”

FHA Match spans seven sectors, Meat, Dairy, Sweets & Snacks, Seafood & Frozen, Drinks, Fine Food, and Hospitality, offering suppliers the opportune platform to promote their products, connect with target buyers such as importers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers, and fast track business growth amid a challenging landscape where border control measures are ongoing and physical interactions are limited.

Attendees were able to catch demonstrations to discover new and breakthrough products via video and live chats available in exhibitors’ company profile and join lively content sessions that discuss the hottest trends impacting their businesses.

The digital events are powered by Saladplate, the premier international wholesale marketplace for sourcing food, beverages and hospitality products globally.

For the last 40 years, Informa has been helping Food & Hospitality industry professionals discover innovative new products and build long-lasting relationships with business partners at Asia’s preeminent Food &Hospitality trade shows.

Saladplate was launched around the time the pandemic started. It was developed to be a 365 online marketplace that supports Informa’s portfolio of trade shows.

“With such a vast experience in bringing businesses together, we’ve learned a lot about our industry – and that is how we knew the time was right to create Saladplate, an online marketplace specially tailored to match food and hospitality buyers and sellers.”

Every FHA exhibitor gets a year subscription to Saladplate to keep their products up online and reach out to buyers all year round, away from the intense period of the actual tradeshow.

An important component of these new virtual events is the match-making aspect. While physical shows can be overwhelming when it comes to meeting the right people, the digital platform offers artificial intelligence (AI) that takes the guess work out of making the right connections.

The AI-powered matchmaker is two pronged, the first part is based on user inputs.

“Whether you’re a buyer or a supplier, you could be interested in meat products or dairy or something more specific. When creating your event profile, you set your interests, for example you may want to specifically meet importers to a certain market. You set the criteria when you start, and the algorithm will match you to those similar profiles.

“The second part is when you start to use it, it’s adaptive. So, based on what you click on or interact with, it will match similar profiles and recommend them to you.”

Of course, one of the best parts of any trade show is discovering emerging trends.

“FHA Match: Seafood and Frozen Food was eye-opening,” said Cox.

“It was the most attended event we ran, from both a buyer and exhibitor point of view. It was interesting because contrary to the popular trend in recent years of the health-conscious person spurning frozen foods in favour of fresh products, frozen has become a big winner this year. Most likely driven (particularly in the Asian market) by fear of food shortages and supply chain delays caused by both the pandemic and environment issues.”

Problems with supply chain have been an ongoing topic within the food and beverage sector, and it’s not just the pandemic causing difficulties, the Suez Canal disaster and the increase in price of raw materials all have run-on affects.

“Businesses are trying to overcome them by insisting on larger orders or stacked orders so they can guarantee it’s going to be viable for them as a supplier, decisions are having to be made a lot more in advance.”

The world is slowly starting to re-open, and while everyone is excited to be able to meet in person again, the success of FHA Match as a digital platform has exposed how vital it is to have the virtual world offered alongside physical events.

“FHA Match is not trying to replicate a physical exhibition with a lobby and picture of exhibit booths; instead, AI mechanisms facilitate the virtual connections and in addition, the bespoke business matching offering enables buyers and suppliers to receive concierge level service from the organising team to match them together for scheduled meetings.”

For Cox, the best part about FHA Match has been being able to bring people together again in meaningful connections.

“We’ve had so many buyers writing into us requesting certain product recommendations or suppliers writing in asking how they can meet new business partners like they normally would at FHA events, so it has been fantastic to facilitate these connections once more.”