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Reflections on the European Seafood Expo, 2013

First published in Landings, June, 2013.

I had a few preconceived notions about the European Seafood Expo (ESE), held annually in Brussels, Belgium. I thought it would be similar to the International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS). ESE and IBSS, in addition to Seafood Barcelona and the Asian Seafood Exposition, are all part of Diversified Communications’ Global Seafood Portfolio. I knew that of these trade shows, ESE was the largest, so I had imagined a massive, sprawling convention center double the size of the already massive, sprawling Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. I had imagined identical exhibitors and exhibition spaces.

I could not have been more wrong.

Because ESE and IBSS are both seafood industry trade shows (and productions of the same parent company), designed to market seafood products to major restaurant, retail and food service customers, there are big similarities. But the variations that I noticed as a first-time attendee were surprisingly nuanced cultural, geographic and aesthetic shifts from the familiar show in Boston.

I have attended IBSS annually for the last five years. I find it a worthwhile experience to see what is happening in product development, which companies and marketing entities are exhibiting and what their strategies are for the show. From the show it’s become increasingly apparent that investment in marketing is a crying need for the Maine lobster industry. As landings continue to increase, so too should the marketing effort. Part of that investment will be dedicated to finessing new opportunities in domestic and foreign markets.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association directors all attended IBSS in 2012. Some of the directors had been before, some attend every year and some had never been. On any given year, we go to the show to look at new products, talk with exhibitors and attend meetings. Past attendees will tell you that the big draw of the Boston show is not simply the networking, it’s the samples! Oysters, sushi, lobster bisque, salmon, Dungeness crab, bouillabaisse, crawfish, coconut fried shrimp. The samples are endless.

There are also vast numbers of day trippers, there to enjoy the show. In 2012 my brother attended in order to find a lobster supplier for his new business in Los Angeles. He found his supplier but also quickly realized how tiny Maine lobster is within the context of the global seafood industry. We invited our mother and two close family friends who had no connection to the seafood industry other than being avid consumers. And there were thousands of people who met that description – friends of friends in the business, be they fishermen, marketers, or processors – there is always a large group of people in attendance at IBSS who are there simply to have a good time, collect free swag and sample seafood offerings from around the world.

The European Seafood Expo is not designed to entertain the general public. Instead of offering myriad samples for three days or featuring chefs, cook-offs and shucking competitions, ESE exhibitors are specifically entertaining their customers and clients. The floor layout seems more dense and also a more efficient use of space than Boston. Where the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is an open, airy modern marvel with 500,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, with sky bridges crisscrossing a roof constructed of steel and glass in order to let light in, the Brussels Expo is nearly the opposite design. The Brussels Expo is made up of twelve interconnected concrete buildings, four of which were originally built for the 1938 World’s Fair. Another four were built between 1949 and 1957 in advance of the 1958 World’s Fair, the first major fair held following World War II. With only 377,296 square feet, the Brussels Expo held 1,600 exhibitors, compared to 1,000 exhibitors in Boston.

Still, the European joie de vivre – joy of living, food and culture – is inherent not only in downtown Brussels, but runs throughout the European Seafood Expo as well. Hundreds of booths feature cafés and bars complete with wait staff and bartenders.

During the three-day 2012 show, some 25,600 buyers, suppliers and various other seafood professionals from 140 countries attended the Brussels show. By comparison, Boston welcomed roughly 19,000 seafood professionals from 40 different countries. Brussels, at the intersection of European commerce and transportation, is a fitting location for such a massive show.

Food Expo Northeast, non-profit organization that promotes the export of food and agricultural products from the northeast region, had a display at the show this year. The Maine International Trade Center, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, Cozy Harbor Seafood, and Shucks Maine Lobster, among other companies, showed the Maine flag. But it was very clear to me that the Maine lobster industry needs to up its game in the international market place, as does the United States seafood industry in general. A beautiful pavilion of Canadian fish businesses and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans anchored one end of a hall. They advertise in the show daily, in the full program, and are much more organized in their efforts to market their marine natural resources at this show compared to the efforts of the United States.

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