United In DC?

It has now been a half-decade since the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association abandoned the notion that its trade show was the place to sell fresh produce. As a result, the show is mostly built around packaging and equipment. The few produce vendors that continue to exhibit are mostly very closely tied to the association and simply looking to express support.

It is not surprising that a produce industry show, without much produce, is also not going to be seen as crucial. Though there is no question that the show has a function – for example, many attendees came specifically to investigate packaging options – this function seems a small one and, quite possibly, one that could be met at other venues.

Yet, while the trade show has declined tremendously in importance, especially from the vantage point of the old timers who remember when the United show was THE place and PMA was just a small meeting, the United event has actually grown enormously useful.

Part of its usefulness is the collection of outside commodity groups that have settled on United as a useful place to hold a late winter/early spring meeting. I had a couple of very important meetings with leaders in the banana industry for example. They weren’t there for United; they were there because the International Banana Association held its meeting coincident with United.

Most of the value is in the holding of a spring event and not in the trade show, per se. In fact, many of the best people at this year’s United convention never made it to the trade show at all.

Despite its value, the event’s future is not crystal clear. This year’s event was in Orlando, usually a great draw, and the official number of attendees was only 2,500. Sparse aisles, however, indicate that the attendees spent little time on the show floor.

Still, even that 2,500 number is down from 3,700 last year and 4,220 the year before. Next year the show moves to California and will get a boost, but to be more than a local show, something will have to change.

There was a lot of activity this year. United started and ended the program with special one-day conferences – one on marketing and management, one on science and technology. But these, while offering value, seemed a stretch. After all, United could offer the same one-day program in Salinas or New York and probably get more attendees. And besides, it wasn’t exactly clear how all this fits into the mission of United.

It is important to understand that as the United convention has weakened over the years, the importance of the United organization to the industry has increased. In part, this is because United’s decision to deemphasize selling produce at its trade show reduced competition between United and PMA and thus allowed the industry to accept a de facto separation of functions.

PMA, with its powerful retail contingent, would champion marketing. United, operating without the possible conflict of interest that a powerful retail contingent brings to the table, could represent produce interests in Washington D.C.

And it is this function – lobbying on behalf of the produce trade – that provides United with its raison d’etre. It may also point the way to refocus the United convention to help the industry and build a stronger United.

United has long had a separate Public Policy Conference held in Washington D.C. in the fall. It is a superb event involving seminars, networking opportunities and the opportunity to bring produce leaders into direct contact with Washington bigwigs.

Autumn is not a great time for the meeting. For the produce industry, many executives are heavily involved in preparations for PMA, also held in the fall, and the timing of the Public Policy Conference, coming so close to the government’s fiscal year end and so close to elections, often makes it a bad time to meet with congressional leaders and so forth.

What would work like a charm, however, would be to consolidate the United Convention with the Public Policy Conference. The event would be held each spring in Washington D.C., with the conferences and seminars focusing on public policy issues. A trade show could be included if companies want to exhibit, although such a show could easily be accommodated in a major hotel rather than a convention center.

This would meet all the needs. For the industry, it would provide a spring venue to hold meetings. The event’s location and substance would reinforce why United is important and significant to the trade. And by staying in Washington D.C., the event would more easily attract top Washington Pols.

Just because my father used to attend the United trade show is no reason to keep it going. United is the Washington arm of the produce trade, and its event should illuminate the process, the issues and the difficulties this poses.

United is very important to the trade, and its event should be a unique statement of what United is and what unique role it plays in the trade. United’s job is reaching out to the government, and a D.C. event will both clarify United’s role in the trade and help it execute that role more effectively.