Houston was a substitute city that PMA seized upon when its original choice for 2007 — New Orleans — was judged not able to handle a convention of PMA’s size in its post-Katrina condition.
The show was clearly a success. Registration was expected to be down from last year because it is always down when the show moves from California to another venue. We would expect a dip of about 2,000 people and, although PMA has not yet issued a final number, that is roughly what it was tracking as of Tuesday. PMA had more attendees than it had budgeted for the show.
The loss of 2,000 people that typically occurs when we move out of California always offers both bad and good news. Most of those extra 2,000 attendees are day-tripping farmers from California who will never invest the time or money to fly off to other cities to attend the convention. Although it is always good for the industry to have growers gain exposure to marketing, those extra growers tilt the buyer/non-buyer ratio on the show floor in such a way that it dilutes the quality of the show for the exhibitors, the vast bulk of which need to reach produce buyers.
Houston is scheduled for one more PMA in 2012. And then the question is whether it should be added to the rotation again.
We were impressed with the convention center and thought the adjacent Hilton a dream property for conventioneers. We were also pleasantly surprised at the restaurant scene in Houston.
Yet our sense was that it is not a good location for PMA.
Many focus on the desirability of the city as a tourist attraction, and it is true that Orlando, with its golf courses and theme parks; New Orleans, with its “Big Easy” jazz reputation, casinos and the French Quarter; and Anaheim, with Disneyland and easy access for after-convention trips to Baja, Hawaii and Las Vegas, are attractions in themselves. The sites attract a few attendees on the fence and, certainly, attract more spouses.
Yet a strong event such as PMA’s Fresh Summit shouldn’t and doesn’t depend on such an attraction. PMA is the event, and the major players in produce come because of the event, not the scenery. Atlanta, for example, is not a major tourist attraction, yet it always attracts a good crowd.
Partially our sense that Houston doesn’t work for future PMA Conventions is pragmatic. PMA maxed out the convention center, which means if PMA continues to grow, the center will be too small. PMA has to book 13 years in advance and so unless Houston expands the center, we can’t see how it can even be considered. With floral picking up, we could imagine an extra 150 floral booths by 2012 — so Houston is probably too small for 2012 much less further out. A larger center is a must.
Beyond that, PMA is an unusual event. Many trade shows are focused on the show itself, and so where people stay doesn’t really matter. But the produce industry and PMA are about connections. So after-show events — from dinners and hospitality suites to parties — are a crucial consideration.
Houston has two separate core areas — the downtown and the Galleria — and the hotel package for a convention the size of Fresh Summit depends on using both. But PMA is all about connection, and this “two-section” hotel package is about division. It makes it harder to entertain, be entertained and connect informally. It is inherently inimical to what makes for a successful PMA.
In other words, PMA is strongest when it is in a city that makes it easy for companies to market after hours and for people to network at restaurants and bars.
This is why Atlanta — though not a big tourist destination — works. Right in a row we have the massive Westin (1,068 rooms), Hyatt (1,260 rooms), Marriott (1,675 rooms) — add in other large nearby hotels, such as the Sheraton, the Hilton and the Ritz-Carlton, and you have a core area in which it is easy to schedule parties, hospitality suites and dinners and easy for people to hang out in the bars with their friends and contacts late into the night.
PMA does a great job with its meal functions, workshops, networking events and trade show. But in a sense, PMA just provides the venue, the gathering place. The magic of Fresh Summit is created by the industry in tens of thousands of after-trade-show connections.
The industry owes a debt to Houston for helping us out and stepping up when New Orleans was damaged, but unless the city both builds a larger convention center and many more hotel rooms near the convention center so that use of hotels in the Galleria district would no longer be necessary, it is not the right venue for a permanent place in the PMA rotation.