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Pundit’s Mailbag — Selling Versus Learning At PMA

Our continuing series on the PMA convention in Houston kicked off with a piece that asked a question: PMA Analysis — Does Houston Merit A Permanent Place In The PMA Rotation?

We then looked at attendance and pointed out that in Houston, PMA’s Attendance Just Shy Of 16,000. Peter Dessak, Vice President of Six L’s Packing Company, wrote us explaining that his experience out in the Galleria area — or “the boondocks” as he put it — was that it added significantly to the cost of the show and restricted the time available for other activities. We called that piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA Needs To Factor Bus Time And Taxi Costs Into Convention City Choice.

In the course of these articles we’ve mentioned that there is a normal fluctuation of around 2,000 attendees when the PMA convention moves in and out of California. Some readers took umbrage at our characterization of those “swing” attendees.

Here are the two paragraphs that seemed to irk some growers, the highlights were added by Jack Vessey:

“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.”

“We also pointed out that the 2,000 extra attendees are typically small growers, many not involved in marketing and that, although their presence helps serve an educational purpose for the industry in raising the sophistication level of growers on marketing subjects, they are also a distraction on the trade show floor for most exhibitors who need produce buyers to sell to.”

Jack Vessey, Vice President/Marketing Director, Vessey & Company, has often served as a kind of defender of the growing base, including in a letter we published under the title, Pundit’s Mailbag — Trapping Stations And Food Safety Costs, where Jack decried the practice of burdening the growers with additional costs in the service of food safety.

Now he writes again to wryly point out that while growers may gain by exposure to marketing, surely the whole industry can learn from those with, as Jack puts it, “mud on their boots”:

Do you think that it would be good to raise the sophistication level of the sales/marketing on growing/agriculture subjects?

How about sales/marketing gaining exposure to growing?

We have marketers engaging in year round contracts at red ink, because they have no clue as to what are costs are on a year to year basis.

I guess the industry doesn’t need to learn from those with mud on their boots, or dirt on their hands.

Who needs unsophisticated day-tripping California farmers, when we can just get it all offshore!

— Jack Vessey
Vice President/Marketing Director
Vessey & Company

Three swipes with a wet noodle for the Pundit in not pointing out that learning happens on all sides and, of course, having more production-side attendees opens up the possibility of learning for everyone else.

This being said, however, PMA is in a particular situation, which is that it has to provide value for exhibitors who, primarily, are looking to sell things to retail produce buyers.

To Jack’s point, this means those booths are principally staffed with sales and marketing people, and the nature of their jobs and the format of the show is such that whatever doubtless very valuable information growers could impart, the floor of the PMA convention is not a likely venue for this to happen.

We should mention that this issue goes beyond growers and is likely to become even more pronounced as PMA becomes a more international organization.

We publicized the launch of the Australia/New Zealand PMA Country Council here. It has been a stupendous success: There were more people from the Australian and New Zealand produce industry in Houston than gather for any annual meeting in Australia or New Zealand!

Yes, there is a produce trade between Australia/New Zealand and the U.S. The U.S. imports kiwi and apples from New Zealand (see our interview with Dawn Gray of Enza here), and Australian navels are a significant item.

There is a little export business from the United States to Australia and New Zealand. We highlighted the sale of USA pears in New Zealand here.

Still, the vast majority of Australian and New Zealand attendees are not at PMA to buy or sell produce. They are there to learn.

That is true of many international attendees.

One exhibitor at a fresh-cut organization told us a little story: He was manning his booth and a fresh–cut processor on another continent came over to ask questions and take pictures regarding the technology used in production of certain items. As our exhibitor politely tried to disengage himself to look for clients and prospects to help, the visitor kept asking questions.

When he didn’t get the honest and open answers he wanted plus felt exasperated as our exhibitor friend kept trying to pull away, the visiting fresh-cut processor finally announced: “Listen, I’m here at PMA to learn” and our exhibitor friend explained: “That’s fine, but I’m here to sell!”

We’re hearing word of this kind of disconnect more and more frequently, particularly as the non-North American attendance rises.

Some of it could be solved by PMA doing more education about how attendees should approach exhibitors about non-purchasing inquiries.

In this example, the visiting processor should have offered a card, asked who would be in charge and suggested a get-together outside of exhibit hall hours or a phone conversation after the show.

The very fact that this processor was completely non-competitive opened the door to an exchange of information, sort of a long distance share group, and approached in this way, our exhibiting processor would have almost certainly been amenable.

But it is not uncommon for exhibiting companies to spend in the six figures for one convention — and they are under pressure to show tangible returns from that investment. They need to prioritize their time on the trade show floor.

So education about how to approach these things can help. But there is also a disconnect between the staffing and the attendees at many trade shows.

As buying becomes more of an executive function with issues of food safety, sustainability and corporate social responsibility being of increasing concern to buying organizations, the staffing at booths, which very frequently is a bunch of hired models to give out samples combined with salespeople and merchandisers, is increasingly unable to provide truly valuable information. PMA is so important that it manages to keep a fair number of top executives in their booths for at least two days — but it is an exception in the trade show world.

One reason various efforts, dating back to FMI’s old Produce Pavilion, have had difficulty in their efforts to turn a produce trade show into an information source for supermarket CEOs is that produce trade booths are typically not staffed with people able to usefully help a supermarket CEO.

It is hard to imagine someone like Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott or Tesco’s CEO Sir Terry Leahy deciding that the way they want to learn about produce is to attend our industry trade shows. After all, they have produce executives who, presumably, they would turn to if they suddenly got interested in the area.

But if they did come, it is hard to know what the typical booth worker at a produce show would have to say to them that would be helpful.

We may never have to look for Mr. Scott or Sir Terry at our trade shows, but as corporate-level concerns start to have greater influence on procurement, exhibitors may need to think hard about the make-up of their booth staff.

Rarely do buyers need to see the product any more. Half the time, the “product” at these shows isn’t even the real McCoy. We’ve seen plenty of counter-seasonal shippers and marketing boards removing labels so they can have grapes or melons or stone fruit to display.

But if we are not showing the product, what are we exhibiting? And are we staffing to really demonstrate the capabilities we offer?

Many thanks to Jack for helping us think about the role of growers and the broader issue of trade shows in the 21st century.

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