Success In Chicago

Woody Allen once said that half of life is just showing up, and as I sat at United’s Centennial dinner — a glamorous and, indeed, triumphant affair — I thought that much more than half of life is just surviving long enough to see things turn your way. But that would be unfair because things don’t just turn. People have to make them turn.

United’s staff, particularly Tom Stenzel, United’s president, and the volunteer leadership, especially Karen Caplan, chairman, and Larry Kern, the incoming chairman, deserve much praise for their repositioning of the association and its trade event.

United’s show was once the largest produce event in the world. I recall my parents preparing every year for United’s February convention and my mom’s excitement the year it was held in Hawaii. Going back even further, my grandmother showed me photos of a United contest she organized, in which the women designed produce-filled hats to parade at the convention.

But that is all ancient history. By the time we launched Produce Business in 1985, PMA was the leading event, and we knew that was the place to unveil our inaugural issue. Indeed a few years ago United had to basically forfeit its trade show franchise. A lack of retail attendance made the association refocus on equipment and technology, particularly products suitable for wholesalers and grower-shipper-packers.

For those with only a decade or so of memories of United shows, the new event in Chicago was an astounding transformation. For those whose memories go back further, it was a taste of how things used to be — except maybe better.

This year’s show was simply more fun. United’s co-location with FMI, the supermarket industry show, and with the Fancy Food Show and the All Things Organic show gave produce people a chance for some unusual experiences at a produce show. So when there was a break, you could find people sampling the newest cappuccino at the Fancy Food Show or having beer and pizza at the FMI show.

As the success of the event became evident, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Bob Carey, PMA’s longtime president, not long after he retired. United was in much trouble; without a big show, it wasn’t clear how United would finance its government relations efforts or even what the future of the organization would be.

Bob said he hoped PMA’s Board would be generous with United. Many years ago, the Board of the predecessor to PMA, the Produce Packaging and Marketing Association, approached United about joining as a division. United said no. PPMA became PMA, refocused itself on marketing, got support from the key buying organizations and the rest is history.

But even with the great success of the United show in Chicago, we still face an uncertain future. When FMI tried to launch its produce pavilion some years ago, it had several years of increasing success before it simply collapsed.

A trade show depends on vendors and attendees finding a return on investment from exhibiting and attending, respectively. For all the excitement of this year’s show, the ROI on exhibiting and attending will probably take several years to sort out. The world has become brutally competitive, and no amount of good cheer will make people spend money if they don’t see a real return.

Still, it would be churlish to dwell on the dangers ahead at a moment of true triumph. The first step to a long-term success is having a short-term success, and, on that count, United can proudly fly a “mission accomplished” banner.

Of course, for every action in life, there is a reaction and we are starting to see it already.

Bob Carey, a man of great modesty, often told me it wasn’t important to blow PMA’s horn. Just do the right thing, and those who need to know will know. And though he may be retired, Bob’s philosophy still permeates PMA — but maybe not for long.

Although the popular image is that United does all the work in D.C., this has not been true for a long time. PMA has spent millions of dollars on law firms, staff and contributions to industry alliances to help the trade in Washington. As long as PMA and United weren’t competitive, the PMA Board seemed unconcerned about who got the credit. But PMA has reorganized its staff and made it clear it is going to be more prominent in government relations.

So PMA will look for recognition of its contributions to government affairs. And with new competition, PMA has to think about reinvesting in its event. This means spending resources on enhancing PMA’s Fresh Summit — funds that won’t be available for other industry needs. For example, the 5 A Day program has been generously supported by PMA principally with funds raised from PMA’s convention.

Whether money is spent enhancing PMA’s convention programs or moderating its costs to the industry, if the profitability of the event is impacted, then the industry overall will lose a source of ready funds.

This is a necessary, appropriate and predictable response to new competition. I have two young sons. Doubtless, the PMA Board won’t want them writing this column one day about how their parents once headed off to a then-grand convention each October.