As we prepare for the upcoming New York Produce Show and Conference, this year is like no other. It will surprise no one to learn that after the hiatus caused by the COVID pandemic last year, we were uncertain how things would unfold when we were told that the New York State and City authorities had authorized this year’s Show to go on.
After all, how could anyone accurately predict how people would react to the idea of getting together again?
As the year went on, we attended other produce events, smaller than The New York Show, but all successful in their own ways. Obviously, nobody was compelled to attend, and those who did attend seemed mostly excited to reconnect.
Still, some people had fears. We received many calls from people telling us they had gone to various events, and their teams felt uncomfortable and wanted to refrain from attending events in the immediate future.
Yet, despite these reports, what we were concerned about seems to have actually turned out to be in our favor. In New York, the rules of the City require vaccination for people to eat indoors at restaurants, to be in large meetings, cocktail parties, seminars and trade shows. Since, of course, not everyone is vaccinated, we initially thought this would depress attendance.
Yet, interestingly enough, when people called to express concern, even to withdraw… when they learned and shared with their teams that New York required vaccinations, they mostly felt reassured and recommitted to the event.
Other factors built confidence as well. Vaccination became more common. Also important is that vaccination extended to younger people. Many who had been concerned were not so much concerned that they would personally get COVID; they were concerned that their children, who could not be vaccinated, would get COVID. Now that vaccination is open to everyone over the age of five, those concerns have become less pressing.
When I was a young man working for my father on the Hunts Point Market, there was a bad freeze, and some products with which we were strong basically disappeared from the market. I remember some of team getting panicked due to the large percentage of our business that was suddenly lost.
Yet, I remember my father calming the team: “We are in the business,” he explained. If people couldn’t eat green beans from Georgia because there were none, they would eat something else, so he directed us to hit the phones, call shippers, let them know we had spare capacity.
Because of the freeze, prices went up and, in the end, we had a record year.
The lesson is not of course, to be a Pollyanna. Things do not always work out, but it is always the case that there are many routes to success; some we find, some find us and some we create.
I am proud that, with my team, I built our publication, digital properties, trade shows, conferences and more. Most of them were created from scratch.
As an entrepreneur, I think I’m especially sensitive to wanting to build our own success, but sometimes happenstance delivers the unexpected.
After the hurricane hit New Orleans, PMA had to cancel its big Fresh Summit event that had been scheduled for October. Not surprisingly, this left many top sell-side companies searching for marketing opportunities and teams at buy-side companies looking for products, connection, education and all the other things we get through events. So we got lucky. We just happened to be the next one up.
So what we were so worried about a year ago now seems like it will be a record event. I just had to beg and plead to secure an extra 500 hotel room nights. As of the date of writing this piece, hotel rooms booked are up more than 20% from the last live event in 2019.
Because of my lifetime involvement in the produce industry and the multi-generational engagement of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather in the US produce trade, one of the privileges I have is that many business connections are friends, or we have some special bond because our grandfathers knew each other or some other connection. People feel comfortable talking to me and connecting to my heritage.
Normally this leads to lots of talk about business and personal lives. Well, this year, I keep thinking of the old Peanuts cartoons and especially the ones where Lucy plays a psychiatrist, standing in her booth, a kind of parody of a kid’s lemonade stand, with the sign, “The doctor is in, 5 cents.”
Her advice typically wasn’t very helpful, and I’m certainly not a psychiatrist, but in these somewhat crazy times, we often don’t definitively know much, and so we have to talk things through and come to the best outcome possible.
I take from all these discussions that it is a shame the vaccination program became so politicized. I remember when I was out in Salinas in July, I was invited to a sort of celebration of the successful vaccination of produce farm workers. It was a very nice event, yet, I was troubled by it even then. There was a Democratic congressman there and a bunch of democratic officials along with Joe Biden’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. As I listened at the event, I remember thinking what a horrible mistake it was that not one of the Democratic speakers had one good word to say thanking former President Donald Trump for pushing the development of the vaccine with Operation Warp Speed.
It was so important to the country that vaccination not be seen as a partisan issue, but these politicians just didn’t have it in themselves to credit the opposition with anything.
As we have proceeded with the show, I have personally spoken with so many people about the issue and only a few actually knew very much about the vaccines. For some, living in rural areas, they just didn’t feel much at risk. For others, there was a generalized fear, but for the most passionate of those unvaccinated, it was a political case — they just didn’t want to be told what to do.
The rules in New York, of course, are not my rules. Our company is powerless to change them even if we wanted to. Yet that is not necessarily clear to everyone, and people who love our event, have come for years, but don’t want to be vaccinated, have sometimes expressed anger about the rules. I’ve received notes calling me a “medical terrorist,” because we follow the law in New York.
Yet, though these are loud voices, one remembers the overwhelming majority are vaccinated and seem happy that the rules are what they are. Today, over 80% of the US population over 21 is vaccinated — and the remaining 20% are disproportionately poor, which isn’t a big demographic at the New York Produce Show!
It is odd, of course, that in almost the whole country, children are required to be inoculated against Diptheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Polio, Chicken Pox, Measles, Mumps, Rubella and Hepatitis B in order to attend school. Although there is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is out there rabidly anti-vaccine, most of the people concerned about COVID vaccines have had no problem having their children vaccinated.
Yes, of course, the COVID vaccines are newer and, until recently, all were only available under an “emergency use” authorization. Now Pfizer/BioNTech have received full approval with others likely to receive full approval soon. No medicine is perfect, but with almost a half a billion doses given in the US to about 200 million fully vaccinated people and more than 7.5 billion doses given globally, there are remarkably few indicators of a problem.
Although COVID, like the flu, typically becomes more common as the winter proceeds, there are new medicines now. Merck has Molnupiravir, and Pfizer has Paxlovid; both have applied for emergency use authorization from the FDA. The UK has already approved the Merck antiviral, and Pfizer has announced that its drug reduces the risk of hospitalization and death by 89% in vulnerable adults.
It is clear that between vaccinations and the new medications, the world is moving toward a situation where COVID is endemic and simply part of the world we live in.
To me, getting my three doses of vaccine wasn’t a difficult choice. First, I have a wife and children and co-workers, and if I can avoid giving anyone a disease, I want to do so. Second, I travel the world, and it is required and I don’t want to give that up. Third, I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want to live like a hermit in isolation, so, for me it was not a difficult decision.
My sense is that most in the industry have come down on the same side. They want to do business, they want to hug their friends; those looking to maintain and build relationships want to engage at a closer level.
There are risks. But we drive cars, and there is a risk there too. You can die of the flu, so there are risks as well. But most just don’t want to live a life so timid.
In a way, this pandemic has been an exceptional moment in human history. Without phones, computers and the internet, most couldn’t make a living staying home. But now, for the first time in human history, many, though certainly not all, were able to stay home and still earn a living.
I favor the right to choose. And those who want to get vaccinated and can do that, that is their choice to make.
Still, I don’t think one can live a fully human life locked in a room. As I head to the New York Produce Show, I think about my friends in foodservice and how they have suffered (we actually created a special Foodservice Forum program this year focused on how the foodservice industry can rebuild, relaunch and begin growing). There is some indication that this horrible pandemic we’ve gone through has caused consumer attitudes to change a bit and focus more on health and wellness, and that of course may help facets of the fresh produce industry.
We are mostly pretty spoiled. History is filled with war and pandemics, with death and illness and destruction about which the people of the time could do nothing. We have the good fortune to live in a world of such wealth and technology that we could make vaccines and pills — we can subsidize keeping almost everyone safe, until a new day could dawn.
I had to decide, at some point, whether we would go ahead with the show. It puts millions of dollars at risk, and who knew how people would feel? But, I thought of my teenage sons and the world I want them to live in and that world will include Zoom and Teams and more flexible working arrangements.
But it also involves being up front and in-person. It involves sharing a meal and affection; it involves the full range of human experience. I’m really honored and excited that the mysteries of time somehow made our New York Produce Show and Conference a moment and a place for a great industry reunion… that time and history transpired to make it a great launching off point.
We are going to start here and move ahead faster and further than we have ever gone before. At this moment in time, in the City of New York we begin what will be THE GREAT ACCELERATION to a world of growth, happiness and prosperity. What an honor to be present at the start.