After two years of cancellations, the industry’s biggest conference returns to Chicago.

Following a three-year hiatus, the National Restaurant Association Show is back in action at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago. The annual conference, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019, was forced to cancel twice in light of the coronavirus. Now it’s gearing up to welcome restaurant operators, chefs, vendors, consultants, and other industry professionals back for the four-day event later this month.

Following the usual mix of interactive workshops, cooking demonstrations, and education sessions, this year’s programming focuses on pressing—and unprecedented—issues that restaurants have been grappling with since 2020. Prominent themes on the docket include virtual brands, retention strategies, and supply chain solutions. Other topics that were popular pre-pandemic, like plant-based foods, sustainability, and technology within the dining room, also crop up a number of times.

Futuristic thinking is another throughline of this year’s show. Keynote speaker Alexis Ohanian, best known for cofounding online news aggregator and community forum Reddit, will address disruption in foodservice and how restaurants can take a proactive stance as cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, and other outside forces rewrite the restaurant landscape.

The speaker roster features celebrated chefs like Andrew Zimmern, Rick Bayless, Tiffany Derry, and Lamar Moore, as well as executives like Union Square Hospitality Group president Chip Wade and P.F. Chang’s CMO Tana Davila.

In both 2020 and 2021, the NRA Show was one of the last holdouts to cancel its McCormick conference, doing so in late February—nearly two months after Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker extended capacity restrictions through early June.

The association has projected the show to amass some 44,000 attendees and 2,000 exhibitors, but as of mid-April, its website listed a little more than 1,700 exhibitors. The estimates are also lower than the 2019 show, which featured 42,500 attendees and 2,300 exhibitors, per Trade Show News Network. Furthermore, of the 120 sessions on the schedule, 20 were still missing confirmed speakers and themes.

But given the state of things, even if the numbers fall short, the fact the show is continuing its century-long run is a heartening sign for the industry. Throughout the pandemic, restaurant professionals have reiterated time and again how important face-to-face interactions with guests are—the same clearly holds true for in-person events.

Events, Feature