CHICAGO — The Research Chefs Association (RCA) is gearing up for its 25th anniversary with RCA+, a virtual experience taking place March 23-26, 2021.

With the tagline “Innovation: For Our Future,” RCA+ will serve as a jumping off point for the association’s digital transformation.

“We're in a market that's saturated with digital connections and digital information sharing,” said Justin Kanthak, segment director of snacks for Griffith Foods, Inc., Alsip, Ill., and president of the RCA. “That isn’t just COVID, that is the way we are changing as a community to connect and share information. The cost of travel is high, the cost of in-person experiential learning is high, so how do we start micronizing the way we share? RCA+ really is RCA’s first step into this.”

While some organizations may bemoan the loss of in-person conferences during the pandemic, Mr. Kanthak sees it as an opportunity. Since 1995 the RCA has aimed to blend digital technology with food.

“It was always part of the DNA, so at no point in time do I feel bad about what COVID did or what the environment gave us,” Mr. Kanthak said. “It gave us the freedom to think differently about something that was already core to our values, to push the industry to change and hold ourselves accountable to a new way of thinking. This year is the gift the RCA needed to reinvigorate itself on innovation and focus on technology.”

RCA+ will feature more live and recorded breakout sessions than any previous in-person conference. Speakers include “father of molecular cuisine” Hervé This vo Kientza, fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz and more.

“It is the best lineup we’ve ever had,” Mr. Kanthak said. “We're finding the best storytellers around food science, technology, culinary arts and how the industry is responding to a socially changing environment.”

Learnings from RCA Powered Up, a series of live and recorded webinars held April 20 through June 16, helped shape the upcoming event.

“We realized that we have to be better at digital connectivity,” Mr. Kanthak said.

Along with educational sessions, roundtable discussions and spotlight speakers, RCA+ will feature an interactive Culinology Expo, a virtual experience showcasing the latest in food science and product development. Attendees will have the opportunity to visit exhibitor booths, reach out for meetings and ask questions about their products.

The shift to virtual offers several benefits over traditional trade show formats, Mr. Kanthak said. In lieu of travel expenses, companies can now channel resources toward interpersonal branding.

“We're focusing on that one-to-one connectivity,” Mr. Kanthak said. “That allows companies to come up with a plan. They can say, ‘We want to communicate XYZ this year. We’re going to have video footage that supports that. We’re going to have the right people who can be there for an hour, have their conversation, then go about their day for the next seven hours.’ Once people get into the right mindset, it really is a simpler solution, especially in a world where you can’t meet in person.”

The Culinology Expo comes at a time when consumer interest in new and different products is brewing. Two thirds of consumers said they expect to be looking for new food products once the pandemic is over, according to Mattson’s COVID-19 Food & Beverage Industry Survey.

“It could be in the next 6 months or the next 12 months, but if we don't continue to prepare for what variety looks like, we'll be trying to catch up to pent up demand,” Mr. Kanthak said. “The food industry can’t afford to do that.”

Attendees can register for RCA+ before Dec. 31 to take advantage an early-bird savings and RCA member discount. The association also is inviting members to start the celebration early by contributing to its 25th Anniversary Gift Match Program. Up to $40,000 of contributions will be matched by four Legacy Partners: Darifair Foods, Park 100 Foods, First Choice Ingredients and CuliNex.

“We survived the loss of one conference and we're finding our way through the second one, but those are our biggest revenue generators,” Mr. Kanthak said. “These are things that we can’t afford to lose because it truly creates the innovation for the food industry. We can’t just wait for everyone else to support us. We need to control our own destiny. That’s what the 25th anniversary is all about, allowing our members to buy into the solve for the 26th year and the next 25 years.”