ORLANDO, FLA. — SNAXPO 2023, SNAC International’s equipment trade show that occurs every other year, built on the momentum of its last pre-COVID show and then some. The trade show not only met its attendance and exhibitor goals but exceeded them while also testing some new programs that saw success. 

SNAXPO also served as Christine Cochran’s first such event since taking the helm of the association as president and chief executive officer. On the last day of the event, she reflected on what she had seen and heard and the future of the association and the industry it serves. 

This was your first SNAXPO since becoming president and CEO of SNAC International. What are your initial thoughts on the final day of the show?

In the preparation stage for SNAXPO, you spend a lot of time studying the numbers, trying to understand the flow, anticipating, and visualizing what it’s going to look like. To actually be here is remarkable and a moment of deep learning.  To see how SNAC International’s activities bring the industry together is powerful.  SNAXPO showcases all aspects of the supply chain drawing from industry leaders through startups.  The heart and soul of the snacking industry was on display here.  To meet our members, shake their hands, hear about their products, watch their equipment work, and learn how the industry functions is personally enlivening. 

What do you make of the current state of the snack industry?

SNAC had worked with IRI, now Circana, to do an economic impact study, so I knew coming in how big we were. We employ more than 395,000 people; we pay more than $15 billion in wages, and more than $11 billion in local, state and federal taxes.  SNAXPO animates those numbers by making tangible the care, attention and focus that goes into every aspect of production.  This exceptionalism explains not only why the category is so durable but also why it is well-loved. For example, in periods of inflation or supply chain strain, the category can flex because of the nimbleness of suppliers.  When you walk the show floor and interact with the people, taste the new seasonings and see the innovations in the products and packaging, you also understand why the consumers love it so much. 

This is being considered the first SNAXPO in the post-COVID era. What successes are you taking away from the show? 

That’s a fun question because I came into planning without having been at a SNAXPO. We created goals based on the performance of SNAXPO 2018, the last time SNAC put on a full equipment show pre-COVID. We set our goals at 150 exhibiting companies across 300 booths with 1,200+ attendees. Those felt very lofty at the time, but they would take us back to our 2018 levels as well as stretch us a bit. I’m happy to report that we met all of that. We are at 1,300 attendees and 163 companies exhibiting across 308 booths, which shows the momentum that’s building. Not only did we recover from COVID but we saw some growth. 

Also embedded in this show were test-and-learn opportunities. For example, we created the Co-Pack Pavilion as a direct response to a question we frequently receive from younger companies.   Our goal was to bring in 10 co-manufacturers to dialogue with emerging brands.  Our kiosks brought in 14 companies and they were buzzing throughout the show.  

In addition to answering an important question for emerging brands, we learned it was a great way for some of these companies to test run SNAXPO. I fully expect to see some of them in full-sized booths in 2025.  

SNAC always strives to keep pace with the industry and one of the ways we do that is by engaging emerging and startup brands as soon as we can.  Through our Startups @ SNAXPO initiative, we provided education, docent-led tours, product showcase opportunities, and facilitated networking to make their SNAXPO experience meaningful.  In turn, they brought a vivaciousness to the show that was unique. 

What about opportunities for SNAXPO to grow? 

International participation is one area that holds real opportunity for us.  We eclipsed our 2018 numbers in terms of international attendees, which is an encouraging sign.  The SNAC International Board is excited about the prospect of growing the show’s international participation.  I expect to see a substantial increase in our international attendance in 2025. 

Why do you think they came back this year? 

It’s a couple of things. First, our planning committee and exhibitors provided tremendous support.   Also, we went to shows, like Snackex in Hamburg, Germany, and we talked to exhibitors and brought them in. And some of our startup companies were also international. 

We supported these efforts by translating our marketing and promoting it.  We specifically targeted Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, and we saw a corresponding increase in attendance from those areas. Again, a bit of a test-and-learn for us, but it is an opportunity for growth.

Speaking about SNAC International more broadly: What plans do you have to grow the membership in the coming year? 

SNAC International will always reflect the breadth and depth of the snacking industry, and we’re constantly looking to add members. SNAXPO is a big driver of that, it attracts a lot of attention. We see a lot of opportunity in the international space because we see snacking companies that are very interested in understanding the regulatory framework in the United States, and SNAC has established itself as a regulatory expert. 

Inside the US I think we all can acknowledge that the snacking category has diversified, and we want to grow the membership to reflect that. 

Speaking to that diversity, this year SNAXPO featured a more robust program for startups. Would you consider that to have been a success?  

Beyond our wildest dreams. SNAC has always run an incentive program for startups, and we’ve always budgeted to provide travel and registration incentives for 25 registrants and this year we filled that program. Our previous highwater mark was 12.  We also brought in an additional 15 companies that are classified as emerging brands. They and still very young but beyond the startup phase.  We were able to provide reduced registration rates for them. Financial support is so critical at this stage, but we also supported them while they were here. 

In partnership with Sosland Publishing, we did docent-led tours of the trade show floors, so they could be introduced to specific types of exhibitors. That helped break down barriers and integrated them into the community here at SNAXPO. We had the Startup Hub for them, so an actual place to be. And while we are a supply chain show we provided time in the schedule for them to showcase their products, which people really loved seeing the new products, flavors and cooking techniques these companies were showcasing. It created a positive experience for all our attendees and drove up energy and excitement. 

What can the snack industry expect for the next year? What are SNAC’s goals going forward? 

In terms of events, members can look forward to SNX, which will continue to grow. In 2022, SNAC launched SNX.   The investment was worth it.  SNX was a success in its inaugural year and we are excited to watch it grow.  For example, Dallas will host SNX in 2024 – a city that connotes business. The Hyatt Regency offers many different room options so suppliers can better customize their experience.  Dallas is also ideal because it is centrally located with a major airport. 

One attendee succinctly said “I got done in three days what it takes me three months to do,” as the 2022 SNX wrapped.  In a post-COVID world when everyone is looking to economize and make smart travel choices, the value proposition is clear. If you put your homework in, SNX is a three-day experience that returns meaningful value.

Looking ahead to the next year, what will be SNAC International’s focus? 

We’ve talked a lot about the heavyweight networking that gets done at SNAXPO, but we have two other pillars: advocacy and education. We channel an incredible amount of energy and resources into our advocacy work.  SNAC engages at the local, state, national and even international level. You can expect to see SNAC leadership continue issues like sodium reduction, SNAP Choice, and Prop 65. Members can track our activity through our issue management online catalog, the quarterly government affairs committee meetings or attending our in-person Legislative Summit planned for June.  

We keep members up-to-date through our Friday Advocacy Report.  It is an easy-to-read, one-stop shop for our members to eyeball the hot issues. So whether it’s a legal issue that’s of interest to our members or monitoring a local ordinance or an international development at CODEX, it’s all captured in a weekly newsletter that’s been reformatted and modernized for our members, so it’s actually grown in readers as well.