Until spring 2020, ECRM’s business was all about bringing together buyers and suppliers - in person - for pre-arranged meetings at physical locations around the country, industry speed-dating, if you like.
And then the world changed, recalls Farrar, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA ahead of ECRM’s Global Market: Food & Beverage event – a virtual event running June 28-July 2 featuring buyers and suppliers from 40+ countries.
“Expo West was canceled, and no one knew what was going to happen next. So we got together and by the end of that week, we had conceptualized our first virtual offering called ‘Efficient Supplier Introductions,’ where up to 10 suppliers could present one at a time, to any number of interested buyers.
“Our development team worked around the clock to develop a proprietary platform ECRM Connect - which provides a hub for all the information parties need to know beforehand, a digital meeting platform, an area to store notes during virtual appointments, and reminders for follow-ups after the meetings - and we had our first event in May.”
‘They're getting their work done in the morning, doing meetings in the afternoon, and then they don't have to travel anywhere’
If you’re thinking this sounds like a glorified Zoom call, think again, said Farrar, who said ECRM transferred the ‘high-touch’ approach it had applied to its offline programs to its online programs, doing all the spadework in advance, ensuring all parties’ goals are aligned, and that all the pieces are in place in advance of the meetings, from samples to presentation materials.
“Once buyers decide to take part, we walk through their requirements and objectives and match them with the products and capabilities of the suppliers and create a curated meeting schedule. We do the leg work beforehand to source and qualify each company to ensure the categories and business capabilities of participating buyers and sellers are aligned."
Put another way, you could coordinate 25-40 meetings over 3-4 days yourself if you really wanted to, but that's the point of ECRM, he said.
'Buyers are attending more frequently now that we're virtual'
While a virtual meeting is no substitute for a chance encounter at a bar in Anaheim, buyers are becoming much more systematic in their approach to identifying the next big thing in any given category, said Farrar, and online product discovery platforms such as RangeMe (owned by ECRM) and virtual tools such as ECRM Connect allow them to identify and compare more suppliers, more efficiently.
“Virtual is definitely here to stay, we’ve seen buyers in particular really embrace it. And I think that preference is going to persist post COVID. Last year, the engagements from our top buyers, the big retailers, were up 23% versus the prior year where they were all done in person. This year we're on pace to do a far greater number of events, as many buyers clearly have a preference for virtual.
“It’s effective and efficient, they don't have to travel, they don't have to leave their families, they don't have to be out of the office for weeks at a time. Additionally, they can have more people involved because there aren’t the constraints around travel budgets, and you can have people at the table who wouldn't normally participate, from all around the world. So we've had some buyers from Europe going to what would have been US sessions [were they face to face], and suppliers here being able to get in front of buyers in Europe.”
VP Content, ECRM, Joseph Tarnowski added: “Buyers are attending more frequently now that we're virtual, so they may have come to three sessions last year, and now they're coming to eight or nine, because it's so much more convenient, they're getting their work done in the morning, doing meetings in the afternoon, and then they don't have to travel anywhere.”
Retailers have also worked with ECRM to create tailored or ad-hoc virtual sourcing events around diversity, or remote working, for example, utilizing RangeMe to identify vendors meeting certain criteria (eg. woman- and minority-owned businesses) and then setting up a series of targeted meetings via ECRM Connect, said Tarnowski.
“Schnucks and Meijer each launched their first supplier diversity summits using a combination of ECRM and RangeMe.
“Staples came to us because it wanted to develop a product set specifically for remote learning and remote working. So we set it up, everybody applied through RangeMe, the buyers searched through it, and then we had a session, so we can do really customized things around buyers’ needs.”
Global Market Food & Beverage event June 28-July 2
While the virtual programs ECRM has been running over the past 12 months are category-specific (eg. Coffee, tea, and cocoa, Aug 16-18), with for example, 120 suppliers and 80 buyers, the Global Market Food & Beverage event (June 28-July 2) spans multiple categories with hundreds of buyers and suppliers in 40+ countries, said Farrar (the deadline to register is June 6 at midnight).
“We’ve got buyers and suppliers from around the world interacting across food and beverage, so the buyer is in control. He might say, I'm going to be available during this time, maybe it's two days maybe it's two hours, maybe it's four days. They will go through during the discovery period and invite suppliers they’re interested in to meet."
People aren’t going to go to trade shows anymore and relying on serendipity as a strategy for discovering the next big thing
So what’s the future of in-person industry events?
“Our philosophy has always been, if there's overwhelming demand for something in person, we'll do it in person, but we believe virtual is going to be the preference for buyers moving forward, as it’s just more efficient and effective,” said Farrar.
That doesn’t mean that face to face meetings or trade shows are dead, however: “Maybe you’ll search on RangeMe, request samples, meet virtually, and then at some point you want to host people in your office or meet them at a trade show. It's just that people aren’t going to go to trade shows anymore and relying on serendipity [as a strategy for discovering the next big thing].”
Tarnowski added: “We wouldn't be surprised in the future as trade shows come back, that ECRM and RangeMe can make things more efficient before, during, and after the show for buyers and the suppliers, because a lot of the work that people need to do up front can be done through these platforms.”
Further reading: RangeMe saw surge in searches for minority-owned, women-owned businesses in 2020