Upon the 25th anniversary of the Petfood Forum conference in Kansas City next month, Petfood Industry’s editor-in-chief Debbie Phillips-Donaldson shares what attendees can look forward to this year.
Pet Business: What are some of the highlights of this year’s Petfood Forum?
Debbie Phillips-Donaldson: Our keynote speakers. Randi Zuckerberg, who is this sister of Mark Zuckerberg, specializes in social media and how to connect with today’s consumers. That is what she will be addressing with our audience.
Then, our closing keynote speaker is Dr. Temple Grandin, who’s pretty well known in the animal behavior world. She has worked mainly with livestock animals, but her principles apply to any kind of animal. She is very well known and respected within most animal realms. There was a movie about her several years ago. She talks about how certain people’s brains work differently and how that applies to animals, too. We’re very excited to have her because we’ve actually had people request her to speak at Petfood Forum.
Also, an executive from Mars Petcare will speak—their general manager of specialty brands in North America, Chris Mondzelewski. He’s giving a headliner session on Wednesday morning about current trends and how Mars addresses them, what customers are demanding and how Mars approaches those demands.
PB: Is there anything particularly new this year at the show?
Phillips-Donaldson: Most of the “new” has to do with the kinds of sessions we’re having. We’re going to have what we’re calling “hot topics.” They’re a little bit longer so the speakers can get more in-depth. Most of our sessions are only 30-40 minutes, and these will be an hour long. They’re presenting some aspect of research that’s really new, different or just a big issue in the industry.
One of the hot topics will be on biologically appropriate pet foods, raw foods and the science behind them. A researcher from New Zealand will present her research on whether these foods are really better for pets, or if it’s just marketing. Another one is about omics by a researcher from the University of Illinois, who’s going to be talking about the opportunities for the pet food industry to start using omics.
Another hot topic will be on innovation and introducing new and novel ingredients that have never been tried. The talk will cover how one goes about doing that, finding the right supplier and balancing label claims with what you really can do and can get away with in terms of regulation. There’s always that tension between regulatory and marketing in pet food companies.
The fourth hot topic is actually called “You killed my dog!” It will be presented by a consultant who helps pet food companies set up their customer service departments and deal with consumer questions, especially distraught customers. It’s about dealing with customers in this age of pet parenting, which is just so involved.
We’ve touched on these topics before in previous Petfood Forums, but this is a little bit different way of treating them and giving them more attention. We’re also going to have informal round table discussions in the lunch area. There will be a topic and a moderator just to engage people in conversation on different topics like focusing on protein, updating pet food labels and the next generation of pet food professionals.
PB: Why should retailers attend Petfood Forum?
Phillips-Donaldson: A lot of retailers are really involved in what is in a pet food. They are really picky about what they choose, which companies they’ll work with based on the philosophy and ingredients used and how they source them. I think for some retailers, Petfood Forum would give them a chance to really learn the details about what goes into pet foods—the research behind it, the processing side and the marketing side—and really start to understand all the intricacies of it. Then, retailers can use that in what they decide to stock in their store and how they communicate with their customers.
PB: What has changed over Petfood Forum’s 25-year history?
Phillips-Donaldson: I’ve been with Petfood Forum for more than 10 years now, and in that time we’ve grown exponentially. We started out with a very small show in one hotel room; and even 10 years ago, we were still in a hotel exhibit hall with tabletop-type exhibits and a couple of conference rooms. We then moved to more of a convention center setup and in a suburb of Chicago.
One of the reasons we moved to Kansas City is we had gotten to the point where we had to be in a true convention center setting, and we were looking for a location where everything could be centralized. Kansas City fits the bill. The city is really the hub of global pet food manufacturing. That has allowed us to grow not only the exhibit hall, but also what we can offer.
Our biggest change is the growth and the number of people that are coming. We’re targeting 3,000 attendees this year. They’re going to come from mainly North America, but also from 30 other countries. We also focus on trying to make the program really new every year.
PB: What’s the future of the conference and some goals that you have going forward?
Phillips-Donaldson: Our goal is to keep growing and innovating, but also to expand the types of audiences that we reach. Retailers are one example. We want to have a show within the show for operations people, too. Most of the people that come are in sales and marketing, nutrition and formulation. There are some operations people, especially now that we’re in Kansas City and they can drive in for the day. But we have talked about developing content specifically for people who are on the plant floor—really getting down to running the machinery, setting things up to be safe and hygienic and all the things that go along with that. And then on the opposite of the spectrum, we’ve talked about establishing an executive forum. We get quite a few executives at Petfood Forum, especially from the smaller companies. Is there a track for them that would make it more worthwhile and also attract more from that level? That’s what we look to in the future in terms of expanding the content and the audience.