On being … expo-sed

By Ingrid Sapona 

This past week I spent two days at a trade show. For someone who pretty much flies solo in terms of making a living, the whole idea of a trade show is a bit foreign. It was a food innovation show with nearly 800 exhibitors. 

In case you’re wondering how I got in, I occasionally blog about wine and food on another platform (ontariowineriesguide.com) and so I got an invitation to the expo as media. The show gave me lots of things to blog about related to food, wine, and the food business, which was great. But it also made me think about the tremendous diversity of people and jobs that can be found in a particular industry. 

Given that it was a food show, I wasn’t particularly surprised to meet a French chef there. What was a bit unusual was that he was there to introduce a lobster-infused oil he developed for his restaurant that he’s now selling to gourmet food stores. Similarly, I wasn’t too surprised by a company that was introducing a line of all natural cold pressed frozen cocktail mixes for home use. Both those clearly fit my idea of something that belongs at a food innovation show. 

And, since my father used to have a small restaurant, I didn’t find it unusual that there were booths featuring things like uniforms and paper products. Indeed, the emphasis on recyclability of products for “to go” packaging wasn’t even very surprising. But, that an innovation award went to a company that created aluminum bottles specifically for smaller brands was a surprise to me, as I didn’t think about smaller brands having very different packaging needs. 

At one point, while I was waiting for a tea and cheese pairing seminar to start (yes, there were a number of seminars, including one about tea and cheese!) I asked a woman next to me whether she works in the food industry. Turns out she’s a scientist who works for a company in Saskatchewan that does food safety testing. Obviously an important activity but not one that typically pops into my head when I think of jobs in the food industry. 

The exhibitor groupings were also quite revealing. There were two huge sections featuring international pavilions. Booths in these sections were grouped together by country and a number of countries hosted booths featuring people from their trade missions and consulates. I had never thought about the role of diplomats in greasing the wheels of food imports and exports, but clearly they play an important part.  

The show also had a section devoted to start-ups. These businesses were there for the national exposure, no doubt. But most of them also participated in a pitch competition sponsored by the show. During the competition they had three minutes to describe their product to judges, including someone from a major grocery chain, professors of culinary arts and business, and finance consultants. Besides the experience of honing their product story, I’m sure they gained insights about marketing from the judges’ questions. The winners got professional consultation services to help take their business to the next level. 

Another aspect of the show that impressed me was that participants could sign up for one-on-one meetings with distributors from around the world to try to get their products into other countries. On the first day of the show I chatted with the co-founders of a Canadian distillery. They were the only hard alcohol maker there and I asked them why they chose that show instead of one more focused on selling to bars and restaurants. The answer was simple: they launched in April and so the timing of this show was perfect. The next day I went back to their booth to see how they were finding the show. I caught them just after a one-on-one meeting they had booked with a trade rep and they were pumped. They said she was knowledgeable and she offered advice about how to break into the US market and other foreign markets – information it might have taken them years to glean on their own. 

I’ve enjoyed my professional work but the trade show made me think about whether my career path might have been different if I’d have been exposed to a greater variety of things earlier on. I know, for example, that it was a chance lunch I had with a young lawyer who quit his law job to work as a plain language writer that made me realize it was possible to make a living doing what I do. I can’t help wonder if some other chance encounter might have nudged me toward a different path… 

What if you had had the opportunity earlier in your life to spend a few days at a trade show with big, inviting booths manned by people enthusiastic to tell you about their business and their background? Might such exposure have changed your career path?


© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


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