A Matter Of Focus

The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, faced with an urgent need to revamp its annual convention after a disappointing show in New Orleans this past February, has made an announcement: The Association intends to refocus its trade show on “tools, technology, equipment, goods, and services.” In other words, the United trade show is getting out of the business of produce display.

This is a step in the right direction, but a much less dramatic step than it might seem. In many ways, this “decision” is really just a public ratification of what has already occurred. Long-time attendees at United have for a decade seen the vendors of produce disappear from the show, and they have been replaced gradually by equipment and other suppliers.

This is not, however, to say that the decision is unimportant. By publicly declaring a new focus to the show, United staff and board members have established clearer direction. They may be more successful in their efforts, and the show might begin to rebuild.

Unfortunately, United, as has often been the case in the past, could not bring itself to go quite far enough. Some would argue that United should have just killed the trade show. A clean break with the past would have positioned the association more clearly as an organization focused on government relations, not networking or other purposes.

My complaint would be a bit different. United still needs to define, specifically, what kind of companies this trade show is designed to serve. Tools, technology, and equipment sound like a fine focus, but that delineation doesn’t really detail who should attend or exhibit. There is no common market for apple packing machinery and in-store display cases, yet both are equipment. To have great success, United needs to define its target market, then go and get it by attracting exhibitors of interest to that market.

United sent out a four-page press release on the revamped show. There is not one word on whether it is to benefit retailers, wholesalers, brokers, packers, growers, or some other category of the produce trade. This is a shame. A tightly focused show, perhaps for the growers and packers, might be successful. If United tries, however, to please everyone it will please no one.

Of course, the reason why United wrestles so with issues like this is the great difficulty United experiences in defining what it means to represent the produce industry. Today, a hot issue in government relations is dealing with the issue of Florida tomato growers and their efforts to reduce Mexican access to the U.S. market. Quick: What is the produce industry position on the subject?

The produce industry really doesn’t have one because it is a collection of varied and specific interests. Tomato growers have a different position than apple growers.

In fact, United’s claim to represent the produce industry was shown as hollow when the vote on NAFTA itself was being taken. This was one of the most important issues of our time, and United, representing the industry, declared itself neutral. It really had no choice. Some produce companies loved NAFTA; others hated it. There really was no industry position.

Aye, but there’s the rub. The only time an industry position exists is when it is not controversial. But who is going to pay to have a trade association handle all the non-controversial matters and leave the controversial ones on the table?

Paying for government relations may be the great danger of the approach United has taken. If United had simply closed its show and other things irrelevant to government relations, then the association would have been positioned to go to the industry and say this: “We are not going to nickel and dime you for booths, sponsorships, ads, etc. We have set up a fair dues structure to support an ongoing effective government relations program and we ask you to support us.” Then United would find out – quick – how much the members value United’s government relations activities.

Now, unfortunately, there has been no clear break, and so produce firms will expect the government relations program to be paid for out of convention profits. This is doubly problematic. First, it means the show will likely not have available the resources necessary to make it grow profitably. Instead of being reinvested, funds will be drained to help cover United expenses. Second, it means that United’s government relations program will not be subject to the discipline derived from having to justify its existence to contributors.

Of course, the best-laid plans of mice and men…in the announcement, United makes a reference to “wanting to work with PMA to build this clear differentiation in trade shows,” yet, it is not clear to me that United has really differentiated anything yet. Differentiation can’t come about on product line; it has to come about via attendance. If PMA attracts retailers, it will get exhibitors selling equipment to retailers. In addition, PMA this year, long prior to United’s announcement, held its first FreshTech 96 Conference, a special trade show, and conference based on technology, etc.

Sure, there is a chance for an entente with PMA. The PMA show doesn’t have much for, say, growers. If United seizes a neglected market it can probably succeed and, I suspect, PMA would be content to leave it alone. But certainly, PMA can’t turn down booths which serve its attendees in areas like technology and equipment.

With all the announcements at United, it is worth noting another change in produce industry associations. Bob Carey, who has headed up PMA for 38 years, has announced his retirement. His successor as president, Bryan Silbermann, is familiar to the produce industry from his 13 years at PMA, most recently as executive vice president. Bryan is perceived as having great interest and expertise in technology, and this is so.

Bryan, however, is no technocrat. Though his Oxford and Chicago education covers it well, Bryan is tough. He didn’t become president of PMA, and the PMA board didn’t select him as president to watch the organization shrink. United’s plans should take that into account.