NCA president John Downs hails key return of 2021’s Sweets and Snacks Expo

The president and CEO of the US National Confectioners Association (NCA), John Downs, has expressed confidence in this week’s Sweets and Snacks Expo in Indianapolis, as the nation continues to celebrate national candy month, reports Neill Barston.

Speaking to Confectionery Production, he acknowledged there had been notable challenges in switching the event to the state of Indiana amid the ongoing pandemic, yet he believed its prospects were decidedly encouraging. With trading conditions beginning to improve, the sector looks to recover from the impact of Covid-19, which saw closures of many physical stores, sparking a key online retailing boom.

The major trade event was last staged in its traditional home of Chicago in 2019, but its cancellation last year had seen heightened interest in its return for 2021 (see our exclusive video with Carly Schildhaus, public affairs manager for the NCA here on 2021’s edition).

Last time around, more than 800 companies across the confectionery and snacks industries exhibited, attracting over 15,000 visitors, representing a total of 90 countries that have looked to the US for major trends evolving around the world.

For the latest 2021 event (between June 22-25), more than 450 firms are expected to be showcasing their respective ranges, with the show being expanded to include an opening day dedicated to suppliers of equipment and systems, as well as hosting an awards element to the trade fair.

“We are so excited about executing a successful show. I’ve talked to many companies over the past few months – there’s a lot of excitement and pent up demand for this in-person event. There will be two years of innovation, new products and brands that will be on full display for our Expo in Indianapolis.

“It’s been a challenging environment for everyone in this pandemic, not to have that in-person connection and engagement that represents such a sense of vibrancy for businesses to be able to talk about the issues and opportunities that matter most to their products and brands.

“Our retail customers will have the opportunity at the Expo to find inspiration and innovation and take part in our education sessions, as well as making all those meaningful connections that we haven’t had in the past 18 months,” explained Downs, of the upcoming event highlighting key lines emerging in what remains the largest single confectionery market in the world.

As he added, this year’s showcase is set to prove particularly memorable for a number of reasons, notably the high volume of new products on display, as well as its education programme featuring topical insights for emerging trends for 2021. This will include examining key issues on subjects including healthier confectionery options, as well as the latest flavours and tastes that will be hitting shelves shortly.

Major brand representation at this year’s show will include Ferrero, Ferrara, Barry Callebaut Mars, Mondelez, Hershey, Lindt, Perfetti Van Melle, among many other key brands, as well as smaller and medium-sized businesses across the sector.

The show also includes a destination retail element, dedicated to marketing, merchandising and in-store experiences, which celebrates getting back to business for many of the companies who have experienced tough pandemic trading conditions.

Downs added: “I will be looking forward to presenting the first ever Woman of Influence award to Libby Taylor, who retired from our staff last year, who is an iconic person in our industry.

“So, we feel good about the objectives of our show. It’s not going to be as big as 2019, but we have achieved our objective of over 50%, which was our metric that we set out amid the the pivot to Indianapolis. We have had a great engagement and energy from our Sweets and Snacks committee, and have had a lot of support from our board, so we feel good about what we’re going to accomplish.”


Rise of online retailing

As Confectionery Production has previously covered, one of the most prominent trends of the year to date has been the rapid rise of online retailing, which clearly extended into the confectionery space.

This was reflected in the NCA’s State of Treating report, which revealed that the pandemic forced many businesses to re-adapt their entire model of operating due to a lack of physical trading as stores either temporarily, or in some cases, permanently closed their doors.

Fortunately, as Downs noted, many confectionery and snacks companies in fact enjoyed a relative resurgence in interest in their ranges, particularly with premium brands, as consumers’ inability to enjoy out-of-home treats led them to consume more at home. This has led to some innovative solutions emerging within the sector.

“I have been absolutely impressed by how our member companies have handled this situation – and the category overall has been very resilient, It’s a unique and special category because of the emotional wellbeing aspect of our products, and how our consumers love our products and industry. The thing that was something to behold was watching the online sales and e-commerce – they skyrocketed in 2020, up more than 75%.

“I watched our member companies invest in solutions to enable these tailored experiences to engage with their brand. That was a big gamechanger. I think that post-pandemic demand for online is probably going to stick – nobody knows if it will be at these levels (seen in 2020), but the category has proved very resilient with both in chocolate and non-chocolate sales being solid – 4% and 3% up, so companies had good years, even with dealing with the challenges they have had with supply chain disruptions.”

He added that the initial phases of the pandemic had required a rapid response from itself in liaising with major authorities including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) and Homeland Security,  to make sure its members were considered as essential businesses by the government, to ensure they could stay open and keep staff in employment.

Furthermore, Downs praised the NCA’s team delivered a major coup with a ‘blockbuster’ Halloween season campaign amid uncertainty over whether celebrations would take place at all.

Reflecting on his own ongoing journey at the helm of the NCA, he says that the past seven years have been particularly memorable, and have come as quite some contrast to former senior roles he occupied within the Coca Cola group for 28 years.

“It’s been an exciting journey, great ride and done a lot of great things, in terms of the transformation of the NCA, taking it to a higher level of success, and also taking the Sweets and Snacks Expo to a higher level year-in, year-out, and the continuous improvement we have been making.

“As the world changes each and every day, we hope that we have stayed focused on our mission and inspirational vision through our new strategic plan that we have put together with our young leaders group. We thought this represented a lasting impact, as it relates to the younger generation in our industry putting together plans for issues like sustainability, diversity and inclusion.

“We’ve done a lot of great things in the past seven years. It’s a very special and unique category, it’s a great privilege to lead this industry, which has some incredible brands and models, great companies – some of them multi-generational, and others multinational businesses, making it an exciting category.”


As Downs added, he reveals that he has an “insatiable appetite for learning,” and conceded that the pandemic had put everyone through a major test of how to handle such adverse conditions, yet he has confidence in the sector’s ability to bounce back.

Clearly the topic of planning for the future has been of significant interest, with the future viability of the sector coming under the microscope, with the NCA engaging on a number of core sustainability issues.

“Sustainability is very important for the industry – it’s good for business to be focused on that, it’s about innovation, creativity and grit and determination and leadership, and taking care of the environment, being a good citizen wherever you operate your business, you need to do it in a sustainable way. The good thing is, they are looking at what’s the right thing to do for our stakeholder ecosystem, especially our communities where we operate. I watched our member companies step up to the plate in a big way, and right from the beginning of the pandemic, they were focused on the most important thing, was employee safety, whether small, medium or large-sized.

“I watched that due diligence and discipline, and I have seen these conversations across the industry, so I think this will have a lasting impact in terms of sustainability, whether that’s climate change, carbon emissions, or water conservation, or how they operate their facilities, packaging and general innovation,” explained Downs, who added that the NCA had approached the issue of sustainability with the Always A Treat Campaign, engaging with the industry on examining portion sizes, and education of consumers on appropriate levels of snacks and candy to manage sugar intake.

He is also keenly aware of other major related sustainability issues including that of transparency and due-diligence within cocoa supply chains serving the chocolate and wider confectionery sector.

He added that the ongoing issue of child labour was ‘reprehensible,’ and that the industry was dedicated to taking a stand on the issue, which was underlined by the organisation’s own cocoa sourcing principles. It’s an issue that remains core topic for the industry, as witnessed just last week with the Supreme Court case this past week involving Nestle and Cargill – with justices finding in their favour that they could not be held directly responsible over allegations of forced child labour in West Africa.

With 2021 being the UN’s year of eliminating child labour, it’s a topic that looks certain to continue dominating headlines, and one that the NCA teams said would require continued combined action from all stakeholders within the confectionery industry working with governments to provide long-term solutions for the sector.

Looking ahead to the future, Downs noted that while the NCA remained focused on delivering the strongest show possible this week in Indianapolis, the organisation also has one eye on 2022, which is set to be a particularly special event being the 25th anniversary of the Sweets and Snacks Expo, which will be returning to McCormick Place, Chicago.

“We feel optimistic that we’ll be coming out of the pandemic soon and that the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Indianapolis will be the start of getting back to business,” enthused Downs on the eve of this year’s show.

For more information on this year’s event, visit the official website for more details.


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