The Underrated Value of Industry Conferences: Reflections from the 2018 IIAR Natural Refrigeration Conference & Expo

I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 IIAR Natural Refrigeration Conference & Expo in March, and it got me thinking about the value in these industry events. Why do we attend them?

There are countless niche conferences that cover every segment of the food and beverage industry, from packaging to refrigeration and from dairy to meat. These events bring professionals together from across the country and world — but why are they so important?

Establishing a dialogue between regulators and end users

Yes, the networking at happy hour has its value, and it’s neat to see new technologies and demonstrations at exhibitor booths — but one of the most important aspects of these trade conferences is that they bring regulators and manufacturers together in a more casual setting.

One of the main goals of food trade associations is to build relationships between organizations to promote overall safety and better compliance in order to protect the public. Conferences are where this work happens, and I saw it unfold at IIAR’s annual gathering this year.

The non-confrontational setting allows manufacturers to have open conversations with regulators and inspectors and get feedback in real time. They can ask “off the record” questions they may not otherwise be able to ask during an audit or inspection.

At the end of the day, inspectors don’t want to write citations and owners really want to learn, grow and follow the rules. Conferences are a great reminder of this.

“Associations are the springboard for new technologies, easier job routines, higher efficiency and the means for general collaboration,” said IIAR’s Vice President and Technical Director, Eric M. Smith, P.E. “Without associations, people would end up working in a vacuum, devoid of shared experience with their peers.”

Educating regulators about our specific industries

Inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) visit countless facilities and enforce standards across a variety of industries. However, each industry has its own unique qualities and operates a bit differently than the other.

Conferences provide an opportunity for food and beverage professionals to educate regulators on our industry-specific needs and challenges. If inspectors don’t know about these differences, then they’re more likely to apply their standards and rules unilaterally across all industries — which, of course, is not ideal.

For example, if an inspector comes to a poultry facility and is unfamiliar with the product and process, he/she may chase a wrong issue down a wrong path, resulting in citations that don’t benefit the facility. Compare this to more educated regulators who know what to look for — the result is a more efficient inspection, and if there are citations, they’re legitimate.

Conferences are a perfect opportunity to have this two-way dialogue so that everyone is more informed. If facility owners and regulators understand and embrace the standards in advance of an inspection, everybody wins.

Connecting with first responders

This point is especially crucial at a conference like IIAR, RETA and GCCA where attendees work with potentially dangerous materials like ammonia. It’s not every day that we get to sit down with first responders and emergency management personnel, but those in the food and beverage industry must be on the same page with them.

Often, emergency responders are invited to present at conferences or to participate in certain activities. While it may sound like a buzzkill, it’s not. I encourage you to go to one of those sessions the next time you have the opportunity. You never think you need that information until it’s too late — planning for emergencies is a win-win for everyone.

Education that initiates change

A conference has a lasting return on investment when the information is brought back to a company and implemented. If leaders make a habit of sharing conference lessons and ideas with their staff, they can create a culture of continual learning. These professional gatherings should challenge how you think, inspire growth and encourage beneficial change in your business. If that hasn’t been the case, perhaps it’s time to reconsider how you approach these important industry events.

What do you enjoy most about industry conferences? Do you have any tips for getting the most out of them? Comment below!


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