A new recipe for success

WMU’s first-ever virtual Food Marketing Conference draws over 1,000 attendees

Disruption to business has been one of the defining characteristics of post-pandemic life. This is especially true for the food industry, which experienced one of the biggest shifts of all after COVID-19 cases began rising. The way our groceries are supplied, how we shop for them and the frequency at which we make purchases is likely to sustain significant changes as we move forward into a “new normal.”

But, uncertainty in many ways is very normal—especially for the food industry. As humans evolve and the world changes, so too do our consumption habits. It’s learning how to navigate the unknown that constantly keeps the industry’s wheels in motion. 

Pictured is Dr. Russell Zwanka sitting in front of laptop“Thriving in an Age of Uncertainty” was the theme of Western Michigan University’s 55th annual Food Marketing Conference, an event that also experienced a major shift this spring. The conference—which is normally held in person over two days—was fully virtual, drawing in more than 1,000 participants for the first time in the program’s history.

“Interest in the conference this year was excellent, with a large portion of attendees participating in all of the live and on-demand sessions,” says Dr. Russell Zwanka, associate professor of marketing. “Additionally, the live chats that took place between attendees, presenters and students were energetic and engaging.”

Plating up the pros

Dr. Frank Gambino, professor of marketing and director of the conference, credits this year’s presentation topics, as well as more than 60 high-profile speakers from the food and consumer package goods industries, for the significant draw in attendance. Individuals such as Kevin Holt, chief executive officer at Ahold Delhaize USA; Joy Nicholas, principal at JN Retail Connections; Celia Swanson, former executive vice president at Walmart; Duncan Wardle, former vice president of innovation at Disney; and many others provided their expertise on the ever-changing consumer experience. 

“The majority of the topics focused on the future of the grocery industry as we emerge from a pandemic world,” Gambino says. “Today’s customer has gained comfort levels with online delivery and pickup of groceries, and has adjusted to a hybrid lifestyle of working from home and at the office. It’s quite clear that customers and their lifestyles have changed for good in regard to taking care of their families. For example, we now question the value of a long commute after a year of being able to work from anywhere, versus spending that time at home.” 

Pictured is Patrick Nicholson standing in hallway smilingPatrick Nicholson, a senior majoring in food and consumer package goods marketing, echoed these sentiments. “COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on the way we shop, work and play,” he says. “Many of the trends we are seeing now were already here, but were increased or accelerated by the pandemic—these include online shopping, variety of brand choices and cooking at home. Coming out of the pandemic, one of the biggest trends here to stay is the changing consumer expectation. Consumers are going to be looking for greater transparency and safety in the products they choose. There is a heightened level of concern for what people are putting in their bodies, and consumers are going to be looking for fresh foods and healthy products with clean labels and simple ingredients.”  

What does this mean for grocery stores? As the customer evolves and businesses navigate various global events, how will the food industry adapt? Zwanka points to several conference takeaways. “As for the changes that are going to stick, batching of orders (think larger basket sizes and less visits), far fewer choices on the shelf than pre-2020, and a seamless movement between online fulfillment and in-store shopping are expected to last long-term. Customers have responded in a positive way to having less clutter on the shelves, and it’s also more efficient for the industry.”

A conference repackaged

Pictured is Lisa Youtzy sitting at desk writing in a notebookStreamlining and efficiency were Lisa Youtzy’s end goals as she helped to seamlessly transition the conference to a virtual event for the first time. Youtzy, administrative assistant for the food and consumer package goods marketing program, recalls how 2020’s conference was just two weeks away when COVID-19 hit. After the event was postponed and summer approached, organizers knew that hosting the conference virtually in 2021 was the only option.

“This was my 13th conference and the most difficult to plan, because of the unknown,” Youtzy says. “Thankfully, we had time to turn it into one of the best attended conferences to date. We had great technology and platform partners in Creative Day Technologies and Ugo Virtual, and the sessions are all recorded so attendees can watch at their convenience and not have to miss a thing.”

Future focused food experts

While this year’s virtual format provided many benefits (lower costs, the convenience of no travel), organizers look forward to meeting in person again in the future. Zwanka notes that the face-to-face networking that takes place between students and attendees is invaluable.

“We want our students to make personal connections within the industry, which is almost always best in person,” Zwanka says. “We could definitely see, though, an ability to bring in speakers from around the globe and have them present virtually. It seems that a hybrid format will work, allowing some guests to experience the conference from a distance. We definitely want to capture the kind of engagement we had in the live chats while speakers were presenting. That was a lot of fun, and kept everyone talking.”

No matter what format the conference takes in the future, Nicholson—who will soon start a full-time career with Hormel Foods—looks forward to maintaining those connections. He says that being able to not only attend but also present at the conference taught him how to interact with industry professionals—many of whom are looking to hire. 

“The connections you make at the conference can lead to internships and full-time offers,” he says. “Presenting allowed me to share my story with the audience and highlight the incredible experiences I have had at WMU, as well as how their support of our program benefits students like me in massive ways.”