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Observations From Las Vegas:
United Fresh Builds Momentum

After several years in alliance with FMI and other trade shows, United Fresh held its first solo show in six years. Although the presence of all the other shows added size and variety, this iteration of the United convention had its own charms as it was more a true gathering of the produce family without all the folks from the other shows.

We confess we were asked for meetings by several large exhibitors who told us they were each spending well into the six figures to exhibit at United and couldn’t justify the expense. They were hoping we might bring up to the industry the possibility of merging the associations or of, at least, finding a way to have only one national show.

We have dealt with the issue of potential merger before, and we do think that the industry has wound up with an odd arrangement. PMA, with its very successful business model built around an extraordinarily successful show, generates a lot of money; then, from time to time, the Board of PMA allocates chunks of that money to industry causes such as the PMA Education Foundation or the Center for Produce Safety.

It is a useful function, though many would fail to see the need for an intermediary to allocate these funds.

United, in contrast, has not had the same scale of resources available but has carried the burden for a lot of the industry expenses for lobbying and government relations.

Although some have seen the obstacle to merger in individuals, particularly blaming the CEO’s of the two associations, we have not found that to be true.

Over the years, including a time when United was the larger and more financially prosperous of the two associations, the real obstacle to merger has been that many board members have great loyalty to their own association and, whichever association was doing well financially at the time, didn’t see any particular need to merge.

So to the financially ascendant association — at one time United, more recently PMA — merger meant the other association closing up and transferring over the assets and programs.

There has never been a time in the industry when both associations needed money, and so both might have been amenable to sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to build a new association model for the industry.

We frankly doubt that this is the time for that either.

Our advice to those big shippers who were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to exhibit was that they should stop exhibiting if it was not profitable for them. Sure United likes having big flagship companies and will not want to lose those exhibitors. But these companies are giving United, say, $20,000 in booth fees and then spending $200,000 setting up booths, taking people to dinner, flying staff into town, etc. If they scale back the expenses they feel they are wasting and donate some of the savings to support the programs they value, we think United will understand. United has no interest in having members blow quarter-million-dollar bills without getting value.

For the moment we thought most exhibitors were happy. There were several retailers who were there, and lots of Costco people attended to support Heather Shavey who was recognized at the 2009 Women in Produce event. On the Fresh Tech side, there seemed to be a lot of business conducted with equipment and packaging on display. Others liked that they could make a big splash in a smaller pond.

In the long run, the show will either work or it won’t. United has made great progress over the years in getting a larger share of its revenues from dues and from grants. There are many associations that survive without any shows. If the show one day doesn’t make it and United can’t raise enough elsewhere, well that is when a merger will happen.

For now, though, we have come to think of United as Daniel Webster thought of Dartmouth. He said “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. Yet there are those who love it.”

So, United is the smaller of the national produce associations. Not everyone is a member and not everyone exhibits at its show. It is of little importance. Like Dartmouth, it has passionate defenders and, in the world of associations, love will outrank size every time.

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