While it may be the middle of winter, it’s never too early to start thinking ahead to the sweetest show of the summer — The Sweets and Snacks Expo.

And this year’s event is slated to exceed expectations, with new educational sessions, new retailer-centric learning labs, and even a session with Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor.

Set to take place May 19-21 at Chicago's McCormick Place, the NCA expects the Expo to be the most successful in the event's 18-year history. The show floor exhibitor space already is sold out, and registration is open for attendees.

“The global market is growing at a fast rate in a $428-billion candy and snack industry worldwide, and it is essential that the Expo provides access to more product categories from more international companies," says John H. Downs, Jr., president and ceo, NCA.  "Last year the show experienced double-digit growth in international participation, making the Expo a one-stop-shop for candy and snack buyers from around the world.”

Nearly 100 international companies from more than 20 countries are expected to exhibit at the 2015 Expo.

Last year, the Expo saw a record in the volume of confectionery and snack products on display from more than 50 companies. This year, the show floor square footage has been expanded to accommodate more exhibitors, and 16,000 industry professionals are expected to attend.

"Each year, the show continues to thrive and break standing records while reaching new milestones,” says Tim Quinn, expo chairman and v.p. of trade development for Mars Chocolate North America. “We have a grand celebration in store this year with an awards ceremony highlighted by a champagne toast happening right on the show floor at the close of the opening day."

This year, the Expo will also feature a new Retailer Impact Forum on how to get ahead of the biggest drivers of change in "bite-sized" portions; a retooled Specialty Market featuring 88 companies; and knowledge-building sessions offered live on the show floor.

"We asked, listened, and delivered," says Quinn about the Expo's retooled education offerings. "After extensive surveys and personal outreach this past year, we discovered that our attendees needed to gain more insights beyond the show floor, which is why we are offering the Expo's Knowledge Series for the first time."

A breakdown of this year’s Expo’s highlights include:

Day One

  • Kickoff industry address by John H. Downs, Jr., NCA's new president and ceo
  • Insights on sweets and snacks from executive v.p. and practice leader Larry Levin, IRI Worldwide

Day Two

  • (New) Retailer Impact Forum on how to get ahead of the biggest drivers of change in "bite sized" portions
  • Experts provide industry perspective on the economic climate, the health and wellness mega-trend and the nation's changing demographics
  • Retail expert Michael Sansolo moderates a panel of channel executives to provide perspective on how market, consumer and shopper trends impact the retailing business

Day Three

  • Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor, offers an unfiltered perspective on current events and global issues

Sweets Insights Theater

  • Knowledge-building sessions offered live on the show floor:
  • How to exceed shopper's expectations
  • Building confectionery and snack sales (featuring case study success stories)
  • The new and evolving role of in-store dietitians and how they meet the demand of information-seeking shoppers
  • The latest chocolate consumer study
  • Exploring digital and social media
  • Leveraging seasonal occasions using consumer-driven principles

Specialty Market

  • Features 88 companies
  • Provides access to hundreds of one-of-a-kind, upscale, free-form and organic style products

Specialty New Product Showcase

  • Offers manufactures a distinct location to exhibit new organic, premium or gourmet candy and snack items

Other activities off the show floor include a keynote speaker and an Industry Buzz Network Reception.