By Crystal Lindell
Associate Editor

So, all the cool people were at the National Confectioners Association Sweets & Snacks Expo last week in Chicago. The event featured more than 2,000 new candy and snack products, more than 14,000 manufacturers, buyers and industry leaders from nearly 70 countries, and myself.

It was my first time at the (still referred to as) the all candy expo, and I admit that it felt like a tsunami of information washed over me during the event. I’ve narrowed it all down to 10 observations here, and my hope is that it will help you navigate the aftermath of the show as well. And, don't forget to check out our July issue for even more coverage of the show.

10. The place looked like a Willy Wonka magical, awesome land. If this was your fifth show or 598th, I encourage you to remember - at least for a moment - how incredible a sight it is to behold when you first walk in. There were life-size Smarties, a giant Ferrara Pan candy display and a chocolate river “flowing” through Mars’ booth. It was as if 500 companies came in and set up candy stores all under one wonderful roof. Breathtaking.

9. I’m pretty sure I gained about 6 pounds though. I like to believe that when I eat candy samples on the clock, the calories don’t count. Unfortunately, that’s exactly false. I ate chocolates, and then I washed them down with chips and finished it all off with sweet treats. Totally worth it though.

8. Dark chocolate with sea salt is my new favorite everything. I tried both Ghirardelli’s and Godiva’s take on this treat at the event, and I’m really hoping that - as with luxury car features that make their way down to the mass market (see: cruise control) - this gourmet concoction will be mainstream asap.

7. Lime flavors seem to be the new hot thing. My favorite lime treat was a truffle at the Astor Chocolate booth that tasted like an explosion of sugar and lime juice in my mouth. I predict it would taste great with tequilla or as the foundation in a mojito.

6. The Kettle Event that Candy Industry put on Wednesday night was amazing and major congratulations are in order for Pierson Clair, president and ceo of Brown & Haley Co., makers of the Almond Roca brand. Also, the Union League Club offered an amazing venue that featured a glorious art collection.

5. Mars’ new virtual store technology is Mario Bros. meets focus group. It allows companies to conduct consumer research by allowing them to guide a remote control that’s shaped like a shopping cart handle. The testers are allowed to grab whichever items catch their eye and the stores can determine which displays, packages and promotions work best without rearranging any actual merchandise.

4. Pez debuted a new pull-and-go dispenser, which features a removable Hot Wheels car that actually rolls across the table. It’s pretty fun. In 2011, they also plan to launch a Lord of the Rings set and in 2012, they will launch a KISS (as in the band) set, as well as a Star Trek set.

3. I’m genuinely impressed that Hershey has found a way to sell air. Their new Kisses Air Delights - available starting Friday - are aerated milk chocolate with air bubbles in the center. The line also includes a Hershey’s Air Delight bar.

2. People mentioned social media so often, I started to think this whole Facebook thing could be big.

Michael Kelly, from the American Licorice Company, told me about the success his company had asking consumers to share stories of good will and happiness online. With each post, the makers of Red Vine added a piece of licorice to a virtual chain that circled the globe.

The company also is starting a new Sour Punch campaign that asks consumers to post videos on Facebook of the extremes they will go to for the candy.

“There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty around social media from people that don’t understand it, and what I can speak to is that in the candy industry, there’s really nothing to be afraid of for getting involved in the conversation,” Kelly says. “The vast majority of consumers’ sentiment out there should be positive and it’s really just a big love fest in our industry.”

Meanwhile, John Budd, with Bazooka, has a Baby Bottle Pops website, which features games that allow kids to “get in touch with their inner baby... with avatars.”

He says the company is using Facebook more as a tool to reach moms than kids because of the age requirements on the social media site.

1. The show week was among the best three point five days of my life. Good thing I have plenty of time to lose those six pounds before next year’s Expo.