KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US —COVID-19 has not only impacted the grain storage and processing sectors but also the trade associations that serve them.

Since March, the associations representing the grain, flour and feed industries have had to cancel their in-person international, national and regional events until health officials deem such larger gatherings to be safe.

At this point, who knows when that will be? The new coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and spread to every continent by April, has infected nearly 15 million people and killed more than 600,000. While the virus has faded somewhat in Asia and Western Europe, it continues to devastate major grain-growing countries such as the United States, India, Russia and Brazil.

For associations whose budgets primarily are funded by the revenue from these conferences and trade shows, having to shelve these events for one year has been a serious blow. The thought of going two consecutive years without holding their biggest revenue-producing events is an even more frightening prospect.

“Unfortunately, our crystal ball is as fuzzy as everyone else’s at this point,” Steve Records, executive director of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS), told World Grain.

For the first time since GEAPS’ founding in 1930, the GEAPS Exchange, an annual conference and trade show that attracts several thousand attendees and exhibitors from around the world, was canceled. Originally scheduled for March in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, it was rescheduled for July and then finally canceled when it became apparent that the pandemic wasn’t going to abate anytime soon.

“Certainly, the cancellation of the Exchange was difficult both in terms of serving our mission and financially for the organization,” Records said. “GEAPS has historically, as many associations do, relied on conferences like the Exchange to fund large parts of the organization and help us achieve our mission in other ways. GEAPS has been financially managed well over the years and we did have reserves we were able to use to offset the loss of the Exchange.”

 Fortunately for GEAPS members, the association does much more than organize meetings and expos.

“GEAPS is a network of people who connect to help each other with their problems of the day,” Records said. “While the Exchange provides an easy way to annually connect and network in person, the real value GEAPS provides our members is to get them to people, training and information to help them do their jobs better every day.

“While COVID shut down many things, our members’ plants have stayed open and the issues of maintaining efficient operations and safe environments did not go away. In many ways, their need for our resources is greater now than it ever has been.”

Having offered online educational opportunities for its members for many years, GEAPS has gone to even greater lengths to expand its digital offerings during the pandemic. One example is hosting webinars discussing COVID-19 that can be found at www.geaps.com/covid-19.

“COVID highlighted our need to be more agile in a very tangible way,” Records said. “We already offered online courses and webinars; the pandemic has pushed us to further evaluate our in-person trainings like the Hands-On Training Program and Grain Elevator Managers courses to evaluate what else we could potentially move online. Our strategic plan will help us focus our efforts to ensure we are meeting current and future needs of our members. Those needs look a lot different than they did just six months ago.”

Unlike GEAPS, which primarily serves North America, Victam International holds exhibitions for the grain, flour milling and feed milling industries all over the world. This year, Victam was forced to postpone its Victam Asia Animal Health and Nutrition event in Bangkok, Thailand, which typically attracts several thousand delegates and exhibitors.

“It means we do not have any physical event in 2020, which obviously has a financial impact on our organization,” Sebas van den Ende, general manager of Victam, told World Grain. “The good thing is that almost all of our exhibitors understand the situation and accepted the postponement without conditions. What resulted is a painful but not threatening financial situation.”

Victam’s next event — the IDMA and Victam EDMA — is set for March 18-21, 2021, in Istanbul, Turkey. That could change if the spread of the virus doesn’t diminish significantly or an effective vaccine isn’t developed and distributed worldwide by that time. Van den Ende said if the pandemic is still a threat, the event will be moved to the second half of 2021. The next Victam Asia is set for the spring of 2022.

Both GEAPS and Victam said there are currently no plans to raise rates on exhibitors or registrants for future events to make up some of the lost revenue from this year’s cancellations.

“For now, we do not think this is necessary, as we will be willing and able to take the financial loss ourselves,” van den Ende said.

“If the situation goes on much longer, we will have to evaluate again, but although it is painful, at this moment the financial situation of our mother company is strong enough to take this loss.”

Flour milling has been among the most affected food industry sectors by the pandemic as many companies had to shift from large bulk to smaller, bagged flour delivery as restaurants closed to stop the virus spread and non-essential workers were ordered to shelter in place, leading to a surge in home baking.

Like its members, the International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM), which has canceled all its live events in 2020, has been forced to improvise.

“It has afforded us the opportunity to take a closer look at how we can bring value to and support IAOM members in new ways,” Melinda Farris, chief executive officer of the IAOM, told World Grain. “The IAOM Correspondence Course in Flour Milling has always been a terrific tool for training, and under the current circumstances, it has become even more important to the milling industry, which we’ve seen in the increase in enrollment. In the same vein, we’ve seen increased interest/enrollment in the Milling Technician certificate program offered through Cowley College for the cohort that is slated to begin in August. Since that course is delivered entirely online, COVID-19 has had little impact on our ability to offer that.”

By offering more events and activities virtually, the IAOM can potentially reach a larger global audience, Farris said. In September, the IAOM will hold an all-district virtual meeting for its North American members, although IAOM members from other countries are also welcome to participate. Also this fall, the Southeast Asia and Mideast and Africa districts will hold forums online.

“IAOM will be able to provide a universal district/region meeting virtually, which will allow the district meetings to happen in a new space and all together,” she said. “In addition, employees from mills and milling companies who haven’t been able to participate in IAOM events due to travel and time restrictions are now able to participate on a virtual platform. By expanding our network and reach, it actually helps to increase the value to members.”

Although these organizations have quickly adapted to “the new normal” by offering value to members via digital offerings, they believe that when COVID-19 is no longer a threat, their industry members will flock back to in-person conferences and trade shows.

“Nobody knows when this situation will be over and what the long-term impact will be, but I have no doubt that in a couple of years the trade show industry will get back to its old position in business facilitation,” van den Ende said. “We do not believe that a virtual event will take the place of these physical meeting places.”