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Exclusive: What NCA’s John Downs is most looking forward to at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo

(Image credit: National Confectioners Association)

As the National Confectioners Association gears up for its this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago, NCA President and CEO John Downs takes a moment with SmartBrief to discuss what attendees can expect and how the event offers a unique forum for exchanging ideas and building relationships across the industry.

SB: What are you personally most looking forward to at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo?

Downs: I am most excited to see the cutting-edge product innovation on full display in Chicago. The Sweets & Snacks Expo is the birthplace of industry-shaping trends and new, innovative products that delight shoppers and become consumer favorites. 

This year is an important inflection point for the Sweets & Snacks Expo, as it is the show’s final year in Chicago. For more than 25 years, we have worked in collaboration with the city of Chicago to build and host the world’s premier candy and snack show. We expect more than 800 exhibitors this year — about 250 of them are brand new to the Sweets & Snacks Expo. The interest in our show has grown so much that we have a waitlist for additional exhibitors. We have also seen a substantial increase in international exhibitors and attendees and plan to welcome more than 5,000 retail registrants. The value that the Sweets & Snacks Expo brings to confectionery and snack companies is incredibly important and it contributes to the success of these two vibrant categories. 

Downs/NCA

SB: What are the most exciting new trends you are seeing in sweets and snacks this year? What can we expect to see showcased in the Most Innovative New Product Awards?

Downs: The Most Innovative New Product Awards are unique to the Sweets & Snacks Expo and highlight what makes these two categories so dynamic. Prior to each year’s show, we release the trends we are seeing across confectionery and snack companies. This is an important preview for those attending the show but also great insight for consumers looking for something new on store shelves. Here are some of the trends attendees can expect to see at this year’s show:

  • Brand collaborations: Your favorite treats/brands working together to create something new and exciting.
  • Flavor mashups: Flavor combos that will delight you. Salty, sweet, sour, spicy or savory – there is something for everyone.
  • Social media-friendly interactive treats: These treats give you permission to play with your food and share with your friends on social media,
  • All about options: Everyone treats and snacks a little differently, which is why confectionery and snack companies are offering a range of package sizes and product types that fit every occasion.

SB: Can you tell us about the importance of areas like Specialty Market and Startup Street at the Sweets & Snacks Expo?

Downs: Specialty Market caters to attendees looking to have a product for every shopper. The range of products expands each year and continues to push the industries forward with new ideas and concepts. Startup Street is how we engage new and emerging companies, providing them the opportunity to exhibit alongside some of the best-known brands in the world. The candy and snack categories are only as strong as the innovation coming into the market, and by organizing these special areas of the show floor, we are highlighting that innovation in a smart way that will benefit retail attendees in the moment — and the broader industry for years to come. 

NCA Sweets & Snacks Expo

SB: There is a lot of emphasis on the connections that can be made at Sweets & Snacks. Why are those so important and how does this event prioritize these connections?

Downs: Having the opportunity to do business in-person has never been more meaningful than it is now in this post-COVID environment. Our industry is relationship driven; and it is incredibly important to our attendees to make connections with peers in the industry and thought leaders who are on the cutting edge of new practices. We hear from our attendees how valuable these in-person opportunities are for future success.

All that is to say, the Sweets & Snacks Expo is the perfect opportunity to connect, share ideas and build relationships. This year, the Industry Buzz Networking Reception will be a great moment for our entire Expo community to come together. It will also serve as our farewell for now to Chicago and a way to thank the city for its support and hospitality for more than 25 years. 

SB: Attendees get excited about the Supplier Showcase and overall Expo setting but education is also a major component of the event. What are the major education sessions focusing on this year? How are those sessions perhaps different from those in previous years?

Downs: We are offering 40 education sessions across three stages during the Sweets & Snacks Expo. Thought-leading presenters will tackle various relevant topics including e-commerce opportunities, product innovation, sales optimization, category trends and more. Here are a few sessions worth noting:

  • State of Snacking: Circana will share insights on what is fueling growth categories, present ideas to turn declining categories around and find additional opportunities as consumers continue to settle into new patterns of shopping and consumption.
  • 5×5: Five confectionery and five snack companies from Startup Street – all new exhibitors to Sweets & Snacks Expo – will present their innovative new products to a panel of retailers in five minutes or less.
  • Gearing up For Success in Indy: This session is designed to help prepare attendees and exhibitors for next year’s show. 
  • A New Look at Indulgent Products: Georgetown University’s Hank Cardello will provide a data-driven evaluation of certain indulgent foods and an overview of consumer behaviors related to snacking and treating.

SB: How do you ensure the Sweets & Snacks Expo meets the needs of the unique attendees?

Downs: In short, we request and listen to feedback from our community. As the premier trade show for the confectionery and snack industries, we foster an environment for manufacturers, retailers, brokers and suppliers that brings together all aspects of the supply chain and puts the brands and company innovation on full display.

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