by Mary Margaret Stewart / staff writer
The United Fresh Produce Association has held an annual convention since 1904, and the organization wasn’t going to miss this year, even with COVID-19.
From June 15-19, the association hosted United Fresh Live! – the fresh produce industry’s first virtual event and trade show. And with more than 6,500 attendees from some 1,500 companies, 75 countries and six continents, the event far exceeded the participation level at last year’s conference in Chicago.
“’Canceled’ really never crossed our lips. It wasn’t really an option on the table,” said Mary Coppola, VP of marketing and communications for the association. “We wanted to ensure that, when you’re responsible for gathering the industry to do business each June, we didn’t want to lose that opportunity.
“And certainly, in March, it was such a trying time. When foodservice was losing 80 to 90 percent of their business overnight, we knew that the industry was going to need an opportunity to gather. So canceling really wasn’t the option – it was transitioning, and we needed to figure out how to make that happen.”
By early spring, it was evident to United Fresh and its board of directors that several companies were no longer letting their executives travel. That was the first indicator that an in-person trade show was unlikely to work this year.
“Once we got the board together, they really encouraged us to start exploring this option, and as we went through that process we found that there was technology for us to adopt and work with,” Coppola said.
After getting buy-in from the board, United Fresh starting connecting with exhibitors to start transitioning to think about a virtual platform for June, which Coppola said were “some pretty rough conversations.”
“People plan for these in-person events yearly…to have to ask them to stay with you and make that transition and go through a process where we’re all learning the platform together was really challenging,” Coppola said. “But I think in the end…those relationships have grown stronger because we’ve worked much closer with our exhibitors to get them into this platform.”
For exhibitor BrightFarms, a greenhouse grower of baby greens with farms in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois and Ohio, the decision to attend the trade show virtually was a no-brainer.
“We see this decision to take the event virtual as a real step forward and leadership and innovation from United Fresh, and we see ourselves the same way in the produce industry,” said Abby Prior, VP of sales and marketing for BrightFarms. “We are a controlled environment grower, we’re growing indoors, we’re changing the way that the industry and retailers think about salad greens.
“When a partner of ours in the industry like United Fresh decides to innovate, that’s where we want to be. And they have really embraced innovation as part of what makes this show exciting, and that’s a great fit with us.”
The company grows produce like spinach and spring mix in a controlled environment, a growing strategy that United Fresh has supported.
“United has really embraced the controlled environment community, has gone out of their way to make it a highlight of this year’s show and has really supported us as we’ve been developing and scaling as an industry,” Prior said. “So, it’s a show that we wouldn’t miss.”
Moving online brought a silver lining to all retail and foodservice buyers’ capabilities at these conventions.
Coppola said, “What they’re most getting excited about is the fact that, when they come to a show in person, they have a budget and they have a number of people that can generally participate.
“With the digital platform, they can really expand who from their company can participate because you’re just logging in from home or from the office – wherever you’re working from right now. So a lot of the buyers that we’ve been speaking to are getting very excited about the category buyers that can now participate. Or even the different department buyers who can see what cross-merchandising could mean with fresh produce.”
As a small company, BrightFarms had 24 people register for United Fresh Live from various departments within the company. And this year, they had more time to participate.
Prior said, “When we attend conventions or trade shows, typically we are so tied up in the planning and execution of our booth that our team has very little opportunity to participate in the learning opportunities in the education sector…we often just don’t have the time or the ability to be able to do that.
“In this particular event, we have really represented well and got a lot out of the learning sessions from the event. So, I would say in terms of what’s gone particularly well, that would be a highlight for me.”
From the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Grace Nungari participated in United Fresh Live. Nungari is the quality assurance manager for a horticultural products export company in Nairobi, Kenya.
The company, AvoVeg Health Kenya Limited, is a member of the Fresh Produce Consortium, which markets and lobbies for exporters. FPC invited the company to participate in United Fresh Live.
And for Nungari, her experience with the virtual convention was “very informative and a good exposure to the market and technology,” her favorite part being the workshops. The only drawback to Nungari was the time difference.
“Just for adjustment, the time zone was not accommodating on our side,” she said. “Maybe next time, [United Fresh] can organize it to start a bit early on [its] side so that we can balance at a point. At our side, all was happening at night.”
As far as attending again, though, she said, “for sure, yes.”
“We really appreciate the organizer of the whole event,” Nungari said. “It was a pilot one but let me say it was great.”
As far as the future of virtual conferences for United Fresh, Coppola said that a digital-only presence will not likely be the new normal. The company has an in-person conference and trade show set for April 2021 in Los Angeles.
“People like being in person,” Coppola said. “I don’t think that’s ever totally going to be replaced.
“But I do believe that we’re going to find, having gone through this process with our partners, that virtual is going to be a component of future events, regardless of who you are or what type of event it is.”
Digital presence across the food industry
United Fresh Live isn’t the only virtual trade show right now, though. KeHE, a national distributor of natural and organic, specialty and fresh products, just finished up an eight-day virtual Holiday Show called “Holidays of Hope,” which ran from June 8-15.
This conference was actually KeHE’s second, after it held a virtual conference back in October 2019, before COVID-19 forced companies to resort to digital platforms.
“Part of our strategic plan as an organization is to become digitally enabled,” said Ari Goldsmith, VP of marketing at KeHE. “The food industry is a bit laggard in that capacity and capability, yet we really want to be an industry leader in it.
“We looked at, OK, how do we evolve all different components of our business, including our marketing efforts, and that involved a digital trade show.”
And similar to United Fresh, KeHE saw a record-breaking level of engagement, which came with higher sales; but similar to United Fresh, KeHE doesn’t see a future for solely digital presence.
“I don’t believe that [virtual conferences] can stand alone,” Goldsmith said. “The nature of food is so visceral and so sensorial, like you really want to be able to smell, touch, taste food. But digital and virtual shows as a component to other parts of the business is definitely an area we wanted to lean into.
“As for our supplier partners, they’re traveling the U.S., and their travel and entertainment expenses are really through the roof. And we’ve really tried to create an environment that works to the needs of our suppliers. And also, at the same time, being mindful to our customer partners. And this really meets that need smack dab in the middle, because we have, you know, no travel, no entertainment needed, yet they’re able to still create this really robust marketplace.”
While making more of a profit and tailoring business to meet customer needs, KeHE was able to give back to communities in need right now. In lieu of participation fees for the virtual trade show, KeHE asked participating buyers to make some sort of donation.
“It could have been a penny to KeHE Cares, which is the philanthropic arm of KeHE,” Goldsmith said. “And so, we’ve raised almost $200,000, which will go to areas in need that have both been ravaged due to COVID as well as areas that need additional support right now based on what’s happening in their local communities.”
For more coverage of United Fresh LIVE! from The Shelby Report, click here.