The United Fresh Produce Association Convention and Exposition just held in Las Vegas was, in many ways, a triumph. When it comes to results, there were many profitable and productive meetings held, many exhibitors made connections that will more than pay for their booths, and there was certainly a variety of educational programs sufficient to enlighten anyone interested in being enlightened.
Clearly the Convention Committee and the United Board of Directors and the United staff deserve an A+ for effort. There were two demo centers on the floor and four learning centers on the floor; there were buyer offices on the floor where marquis names such as Kroger, Costco and Target held meetings. It is hard to imagine a group making a more concerted, methodical and thoughtful effort to boost traffic and make their event a success.
So kudos to all involved. Yet we do not think the question of whether a trade show can financially support United’s government affairs efforts is actually settled.
Many of the innovative things that United did, although wise in the circumstances, are also signs of weakness in the trade show business. Every time a new “world’s largest” airplane is launched — the Boeing 747 in its day and, more recently, the Airbus A-380 — the aircraft manufacturers and airlines highlight all the wonderful things they could do with this space. In-the-air salons, work-out rooms, dining halls, bars, etc., have all been suggested. Some of these are tried; as a young boy the Pundit had the opportunity to fly a new Pan Am 747 in which we were brought upstairs to eat dinner in a separate dining room.
Inevitably, though, if the demand exists, those amenities wind up being taken away and replaced by seats that can be sold to paying passengers. So in the trade show business, most “on the floor” amenities — whatever useful purpose they may serve — are there because demand was insufficient to sell that space as trade show booths.
Other initiatives may be successful… that is to say popular… with people but don’t necessarily help the trade show exhibitor — who is the one financially supporting the whole venture.
We were fortunate to be invited to several meetings in the buyer suites on the floor and several buyers shared with us their schedules. They were booked from the moment the floor opened to the moment the show closed in meetings in their offices on the floor. It is, of course, good to have these buyers at the event. This way they can go to dinner with people and attend networking events. And it is good to have them on the floor as opposed to closeted away in a distant hotel suite. However, what the exhibitors need is for these people to be out on the floor visiting booths that have paid for the privilege of selling them.
One buyer showed us his list of appointments and the majority of those he was meeting with were not exhibitors at all.
If these important buyers are in town, available for meetings and attending networking events but not spending much time or any time at all walking the trade show, exhibitors will not find exhibiting valuable. All this is equally true if important buyers are attending seminars, etc.
United has really done an excellent job of integrating the old International Fresh-cut Processors Association into the larger organization. There is comity between the groups and most feel the merger was a big win for United. The one area where it is not clear the merger works, however, is the merging of the two trade shows.
The problem is simple: The exhibitors at the two shows have different audiences. One group was looking to sell equipment, services and some produce items to processors. The other group wanted to sell fresh produce and ancillary items primarily to retailers. That is a gap that is difficult to bridge.
United had been wrestling with the problem of declining retail attendance at its trade show for a generation, finally throwing in the towel around the turn of the century and announcing it would do a show mainly based on science, technology and transportation. Eventually an alliance with FMI in 2003 put United back in the retail show business. That alliance lasted five years.
When that collapsed the excitement of the move to an independent show and the fun of Las Vegas kept things going.
Now, after three years in Las Vegas, United has announced that its 2011 show will be in New Orleans. It will be quite a test.
New Orleans is a traditional convention town and has its charms. Many people haven’t been there in years and the curiosity factor post-hurricane Katrina will be high. The city itself is very anxious to revive its convention business and so will be super-hospitable, and most of the key hotel properties have been recently renovated.
Although the Pundit enjoys the charms of New Orleans — the food, the jazz, the Garden District — and likes the fact that one can walk to the convention center from many of the hotels, many people despise the French Quarter, finding it dirty and a scene of drunken kids and although there is gambling in New Orleans, it is no Las Vegas. Most important, there is no substantial produce community anywhere nearby.
Many exhibitors in Las Vegas told us they and their staff drove in from California. Shipping booths and people will raise expenses.
United is a very strong organization in a way that really matters for an association — its members love it. We have no doubt that many will conclave wherever United may meet and you can be assured the Pundit will be there.
Whether or not the event will get enough retail traffic to make it a worthy investment for exhibitors focused on selling retailers fresh produce is very much an open question.
Even if this doesn’t happen, a glance at all the traceability booths at United in Las Vegas makes one think there may be a market for a show selling technology and equipment, sort of the old United effort merged with IFPA.
Most importantly, Tom Stenzel, President and CEO at United Fresh, has done an excellent job during his tenure of diversifying revenue sources away from the trade show and having companies directly support initiatives they value. This comes in lieu of everyone paying higher dues and for shows leadership of the larger companies when they give specific grants, as C.H. Robinson did to fund United’s Supply Chain Technology & Logistics Program or Bayer CropScience did to fund United’s Center for Global Produce Sustainability.
The truth is that operating a trade show is only marginally related to United’s core purpose of government relations. We need to find other initiatives that will fund a robust United, without relying on a trade show.
That is part of the discussion, of course, when talk of merger between United and PMA is raised.