The last trade show I attended – the annual American Association of Meat Processors convention – was in that marvelous but brief moment of time after the COVID cases started to drop but before the Delta variant took over the country. Mask mandates are back, at least in some cities and states. So as a result, I had to load up on masks in order to walk the numerous aisles of Pack Expo Las Vegas this week.

There were a few takeaways from the show. The first one was that mask mandates work. Of the 20,000+ people in the Las Vegas Convention Center, the overwhelming majority – above 99% – were wearing masks to comply with the city’s policy. Meetings were held, purchases were made, hands were shook, fists were bumped, and practically all of it was done with masks. Frankly, I’m a middle-aged guy with pandemic poundage, working at a job that requires me to be in front of a computer most of the day. My normal activity level is just slightly above “comatose,” so if I can walk 10,000 steps in a day with a mask and not drop dead from the exertion, than the supposed dangers of mask-wearing may be overblown.

The second takeaway was that the industry is starving for face-to-face interaction. I saw that at the wildly successful AAMP show, and I saw it again at Pack Expo. More than 22,000 attendees registered for the show, in spite of all the uncertainty and issues around traveling. The last two years have seen many virtual conferences and trade shows. Technology has improved dramatically in a short time to help make these virtual events work well, and valuable information is still valuable if it’s relayed via a webcam. However, there is still something about face-to-face interaction that can’t be replicated by a virtual event. What’s more, if a processor is going to be making a substantial investment in a new piece of equipment, they’re going to want to see it in-person before putting down the money.

Finally, and most importantly, Pack Expo 2021 saw the rise of robotics. Automation has always been a big part of trade shows. A few years ago, I had a robot make a cup of coffee for me. This Pack Expo had more robots and cobots – collaborative robots that can work in close contact with humans – than I had ever seen. They were doing much more than loading pallets with boxes, too. Robots were placing chicken breasts into trays and doing other tasks that required dexterity and a gentle touch. Meat and poultry companies have long had problems finding employees, but the current labor shortage is unprecedented. Putting robots on the plant floor can fill some of those open positions. The price points for these machines made automation possible for smaller processors, too. If a smaller company can’t afford to automate an entire production line, they may be able to at least automate an operation within the line.

If you were at Pack Expo, what were your observations? Are you looking forward to in-person events in 2021 and ’22? Let me know your thoughts.

Sam Gazdziak