As The National Restaurant Association Cancels Its 2021 Tradeshow, Other North American Foodservice Conferences Go Virtual

One of the largest shows in the US restaurant and hospitality industry is, once again, cancelling its annual exhibition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Restaurant Association made the announcement on Feb. 26 about the show, which typically occurs in late May, citing the current restrictions on gatherings in Chicago, the trade show’s traditional site.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Illinois has placed an order in effect until early June limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people,” the National Restaurant Association organizers, Winsight Exhibitions, wrote in a release. “While this order could be modified prior to expiration, McCormick Place has indicated their ability to re-open for large events is currently prohibited by the state regulation and they do not anticipate changes prior to June that would allow an event of this size and scope to occur in May. Therefore, show organizers regret to announce the cancellation of the 2021 National Restaurant Association Show due to the unavailability of the facility.” The show was also forced to cancel its dates last year due to the pandemic.

The National Restaurant Association Show in 2019.

The cancellation represents some of the challenges faced by the restaurateurs that make up the association’s membership: the difficulty in planning around regulations that shift with the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 coronavirus and its new variants, and the need to keep brand recognition high in a distanced world. The National Restaurant Association show organizers are promoting digital assets, such as online webinars, q&a’s and other educational pieces. In order to address show attendees who see attendance value in writing deals rather than networking, the association is also offering a digital marketplace to connect restaurateurs and suppliers.


Organizers are also shifting to promoting the 2022 show. “While we can’t do business or learn together in-person just yet, we are dedicated to helping our industry through this exceptionally challenging time,” said Tom Cindric, president of Winsight Exhibitions in a release. “And when we reunite next year, May 21-24, 2022, it will be in an environment unlike anything any of us have ever experienced—an environment filled with renewed energy and unmatched connection as the restaurant community seeks new products, concepts, innovation, and thought leadership to reimagine foodservice.”

Will these efforts be enough to engage an industry that is already reeling due to the unimaginable shift that the last year of pandemic has wrought on already small margins? It will remain to be seen whether The NAFEM show (North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, for those who don’t follow foodservice nuts and bolts) will be able to proceed with its scheduled late August dates in Florida this year, or if COVID-19 variants may prompt further lockdowns.

In Canada, the Restaurants Canada show (currently on this week), is running everything from seminars to culinary demos and network events online — a necessary move due to Ontario’s strict lockdowns and travel policies. The organizers of the Terroir Symposium, which went virtual in 2020, are currently planning the Fall 2021 version to adapt to changing circumstances, and have started up a series of virtual talks in the meantime.

The effects of these shifts have the potential to ripple outwards to the economy as a whole, especially in cities that have shifted their focus to large scale convention traffic and the boosts to local businesses that they provide. When the Consumer Electronics Show opted for an online rollout rather than the splashy Las Vegas spectacle of old, the city felt the blow. “I had my fingers and toes crossed that they would sustain and come here in January, as they have for the past several decades,” City of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman told The Las Vegas Review Journal. “The impact is going to be great, hardest of course on our hotels and our small businesses. … There’s no other state in the country that relies so heavily on the tourism and conventions business. But, as we have in the past, we survive hardships and we grow and get stronger.”

I’m a Toronto-based freelance writer who has spent the last 18 years traveling the globe as a magazine editor, and a lifetime consuming and exploring the world’s most