In mid-February I was fortunate to be able to attend Gulfood, the world’s largest annual food and beverage trade exhibition, in Dubai. I was there to better understand some of the important new and emerging trends in the global food service industries and particularly to get a closer view of the middle eastern market.

It is not easy to convey in words the size and chaos of a global fair like this. Spread over more than a million square feet (that’s 9.3 hectares or about five MCGs) with over 5,000 exhibitors for specific commodities and products, as well as representation from 120 different nations, showcasing regional products and cuisine. The show boasted nearly 100,000 attendees from 193 countries this year, with an impressive attendee list– from famous chefs to political dignitaries.

Why does this show attract such a large volume of people? Mostly it is due to the centralised nature of Dubai as a nucleus for business and travel, many attendees and commodity traders use the show as central hub for networking and meetings.

Over 100 nations were represented at this years’ exhibition.

There were many things that you would expect to see from the stands, for example stereotypical national focus areas such as pastries for France, chocolate for Switzerland and pasta for Italy. But alongside that were some less likely products such as vegan cheese from France and Swiss cheese from Estonia. I even came across a spray-on maple syrup product! What really surprised me, though, given the increasing market focus on personal health and the push away from meat, was the general absence of health food and a very small number of vegan exhibitors.

In addition to the individual stands There is also a suite of side events which this year included the Gulfood Innovation Summit. I attended a fascinating presentation by the head of FMCG for Facebook who discussed the role of social media and engaging with millennials in relation to food and beverage. The topics for the talks covered a wide range of subject matter with in-depth discussions and Q and A sessions – the nature of the speakers and their knowledge of the industry makes these side events absolutely worthwhile.

All though the event infrastructure is impressive, with pre event information and attendee website easy to use and very useful in terms of planning your visit and meetings, navigating the halls and exhibitions themselves can be a challenge thanks in large part to countries having multiple stands in different halls and at times no numbering or sensible order to the stands themselves so you could be looking for stand s7-m98 but no actual numbers exist on the stands. it took me a full three days before I was comfortable that I knew my way around.

Walking around the show and talking to the exhibitors you quickly get an understanding of the importance of the show and its impact on trading within the wider MENA market. Overall it was a fascinating event, if sometimes overwhelming and confusing, and it was well worth attending. Given the chance I’ll be there again in future.