United On The Rebound?!

We have to give them credit. The folks at United pulled off a truly terrific convention when many in the industry didn’t think that they could. They were helped by nice weather in San Antonio and the enhancement of San Antonio as a convention city by the building of a new hotel since PMA was there in 1986. But the real reason it was a better convention is that now that the association has new management on board, the staff was free to experiment and implement new ideas. Debra Moss, United’s vice president for convention and exposition affairs, has had ideas kicking around for years. It’s just that under the previous president, nothing was ever allowed to change.

That’s why all the sudden this year United gave a Member of the Year Award (won by PRODUCE BUSINESS, incidentally), an Exhibitor of the Year Award (won by Sunkist), had a business center and offered an exhibitor hospitality center. It’s not that Moss suddenly acquired creativity after years on the job; it’s that she was unshackled and no longer had to do everything exactly the way it has been done for almost a century.

One of the real pleasant aspects of this year’s convention was the general openness which permeated the staff’s attitude toward every conventioneer. Every suggestion was taken seriously and listened to with interest. Even board members of United seemed a bit astonished. Several confided in me that after years of working with United and scarcely ever being asked an opinion, this year they had been asked their opinion on almost everything.

The United Board of Directors and president George Dunlop understand that not every idea will be a winner. But they are betting that they have good people on staff, intelligent members, and a creative industry. If they try sensible ideas a few really good and successful enterprises are likely to develop.

We also have to give credit to United’s Board for opening the purse strings a bit to make this a successful show. After years of viewing the convention as a golden egg to be used to support every United function, somebody realized they better start feeding the goose. For the first time, exhibitors were given a semi-realistic number of passes to give out to key customers. And the giant rodeo they sponsored was notable because United was its sole sponsor.

United is not quite home yet. Though attendees enjoyed their stay in San Antonio and exhibitors who look to reach a broad spectrum of produce industry members – packers, shippers, wholesalers, brokers, retailers, etc. – seemed to find the show traffic good, this convention didn’t deliver the retail traffic that is so valued by the larger exhibitors.

For the major produce marketers and produce boards, this traffic is vital. Its absence from the convention leaves United with a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, it can accept that it has a heterogeneous membership and that retailers are only a small portion of it. But this means a relatively small trade show.

On the other hand, if United wants to build this show in size, it has to attract more retailers. This would require a targeted effort at the retail community. United spent a lot of money this year giving away prizes on the trade show floor in an attempt to keep people at the exhibit hall longer. But this type of program is not targeted enough to attract retailers.

What has to be done is to set up a program addressing retailer concerns. Fly in some key retailers to serve as panelists in the course of the program, treat them well with complimentary air, rooms, food, etc. These people can serve as the base. Then, you have to provide a program of attraction to retailers so that those who are not being flown in will find enough value in the program to attend the convention for the purpose of going to the seminars.

None of this will be cheap, but if it succeeds in attracting the retailers that United needs, the program would pay for itself through increased booth sales as well as increased registration from shippers and brokers who want to be where their customers are.

So United basically has to make up its mind. To attract retailers the association would have to reach into its pocket and pay for programs designed to specifically appeal to retailers. In the short run, this would probably severely squeeze United’s finances. It might even anger United’s membership as it would represent favoritism of one United member category over other categories. Alternatively, United can accept what it is and keep running a nice convention for its members year after year.

Next year will be a big test. United meets in Anaheim, and California is traditionally a very strong state for produce conventions. George Dunlop was in government before joining United, and he knows something about lobbying. I suspect he was lobbying the Board of Directors hard all during the convention, and I expect that between now and Anaheim, we will hear a lot of new things going on at United.

My hunch is that United has pulled it off, that the survival of the association, which so many questioned after the Houston convention, is now probably secure. But my hunch about George Dunlop is that he is a very aggressive man and that he didn’t accept the presidency of United to see the association just endure. He wants to see it prevail.

Today this seems almost impossible. PMA has gotten bigger than anyone ever dreamed. But those who study Greek literature learn that “Zeus’ lightning flies to level mountains.” Which roughly means that it’s the big guys who attract the big trouble.

United may yet position itself for a rebound. In the fullness of time, far stranger things have happened.