Change can feel uncomfortable — particularly when it involves parting ways with an event that thousands of loyal supporters mark on their calendars year after year. But for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), change became an essential ingredient in the recipe for long-term success. Despite new engagement strategies and adjustments to the on-site experience, participation numbers had steadily declined over the past eight years at the organization’s annual trade show, FMI Connect. After a long period of reflection and many internal discussions, FMI came to a tough conclusion: The show had to go. In September, FMI pulled the plug on FMI Connect.
After the announcement, Convene talked to Margaret Core, CAE, FMI’s vice president of marketing and industry events, to learn how the organization came to this decision, and what it means for FMI’s face-to-face strategy.
What were the key factors that led to discontinuing FMI Connect?
It was a pragmatic decision to retire FMI Connect. Over time, we saw a waning interest among food retailers and wholesalers to do business in a traditional trade-show environment. In 2008, we welcomed approximately 17,500 participants. By 2016, our registration numbers had declined to 6,500. We were still welcoming the leaders of the food industry with 52 of the top 75 food retailers, but those companies were sending much smaller teams to the event. Food retailing has changed so much based on new consumer demands such as gluten-free, global cuisines, and fresh-prepared menu options and ingredients, and it’s impacting our members’ team operations and decision-making processes. In addition, much of the retail industry is going through consolidation, and that wave of change was having a big impact on the event.
Who was involved in making the decision?
The decision was made with a lot of due diligence and consideration from our staff and our volunteer leadership. It wasn’t made easily, but it was a unanimous decision. In June, our Board of Directors talked through the current trends, and they gave us support to continue to revamp the event experience. But over the course of the summer, we conducted more analytics on what we learned from the 2016 event, and those new insights made us realize that it was time to be bold. While this was not an easy decision, it was the correct move.
One aspect that really helped us is having access to trends and data that we could chart and match against our business objectives. Our members are analytical in parts of running their businesses, and so are we. Sharing our event trends in the right format helped in the efficiency of the decision.
How has the FMI community reacted to the announcement?
Everyone has been very gracious. We sent out a statement to exhibitors, members, and past attendees, and the response we’ve received was that it was a courageous and bold decision. On the day of the announcement, we positioned a few key staff to share the news with key partners and customers in person prior to the announcement. The in-person meetings were important to us, because we view them as partners and this decision has an impact on them.
On Thursday [the day after the announcement], when we all came back to the office, it was our priority to call all 75 exhibitors who had registered for the 2017 show to speak with them personally and coordinate the financial logistics. We have spent the balance of our time since then calling our 2016 exhibitors and sponsors to make sure they heard from us. We want them to know that we are strategizing how to design experiences that will fit their evolving needs.
Where does FMI go from here?
During this time, we have to have our big ears on. Any time you take a project and put it to the side, it allows you to take the time out to listen to your members, to get closer to the operational challenges they have on a daily basis, and to better understand how we can provide events that address those challenges. It’s a time of listening, reflecting, and analyzing behavioral data to make sure that, as we revamp our event strategy, we are carving out a strategy with a full understanding of what our community needs. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be welcoming our Industry Collaboration Council; our Education, Conferences, and Communications Committee; our Member Services Committee; and our Board of Directors to our headquarters, and will include in-depth discussions on our events and the role they should play in the future.
Can you offer any advice for an organization that wants to reevaluate its event strategy?
Sometimes, you need to know when to take a step back from it and get some fresh air in order to start the next promising chapter. In addition to looking toward the future, it’s important to highlight the tremendous accomplishments of the past. There were people around the staff table that had more than 30 years invested in this event. I only had two years. I think it was important for us all to honor the event for the role that it had played in the industry for such a long time. During this time, we were announcing the end of something that played a strong role in many companies’ and individuals’ lives, and we needed to respect the fact that it was filled with personal history.
What’s next for FMI’s face-to-face engagement strategy?
In no way, shape, or form are we walking away from the live-event industry; we’re just walking away from the big annual format. I’m a big believer in the traditional trade-show model, but it no longer serves the needs of our community. We’re seeing much greater success with our events that are focused on certain topics and certain professional roles. We host 12 events, and we’re focused on bringing greater value to our members in different ways. We’re challenging ourselves to create a portfolio of face-to-face events that will power the future of FMI.