United’s Crowning Moment

The King is dead, long live the King – this is the traditional cry upon the death of the monarch and the ascension to the throne of the new monarch. It encapsulates, in one phrase, the sorrow with which men greet the passing of the great and lofty and the hope with which we greet the dawn of a new day.

In Orlando, in February, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association held its annual convention and trade show. And to those, like myself, who have attended for years and even grown up at the knees of parents for whom going to United was an annual event, the phrase “United is dead, long live United” leaps to mind.

The trade show we once knew, one focused on the sale of fruit and vegetables, is gone and has been replaced by one focused on equipment and technology. This process has been going on for the better part of a decade as United lost the support of key retail chains, but was made official this year when United announced a refocusing of the show.

It was a gutsy move on the part of the United board and the staff leadership. By biting the bullet and recognizing that the old show format was not sustainable, they set the stage for possible growth.

By and large, the Orlando show was quite a success. It was well received by both attendees and exhibitors. In fact, I actually saw more high-level people at United than I had in years – mostly folks evaluating the show and making decisions on whether to attend next year and deciding who from their companies is the right one to send. United knew they needed a winner this year – and they created one. A big, and doubtless expensive, party at Universal Studios was a big hit, and attendance, in general, was helped by the appeal of the Orlando location in mid-winter.

Of course there was still a cadre of United old-timers who, oblivious to all the pre-show publicity, still were expecting retailers and looking for produce exhibits – I imagine some of those folks will fade away next year. There still were a few produce companies exhibiting – mostly board members trying to show support for United. In a few years, those booths will be gone as well.

This was a transition year. Now the question is, will companies, next year, send logistics experts, transportation directors, warehouse supervisors, packing line equipment buyers, etc. to the United show to take advantage of the trade show and workshops? I saw some signs they would, though the question is still unsettled. These departments aren’t usually budgeted for much travel, and major equipment purchases, such as packing lines, usually involve so much money that suppliers will fly buyers for free to their plants to evaluate equipment.

There are also a number of specialized and regional shows on farm equipment, transportation, technology, etc. In addition, next year’s show, which will be held in Houston, TX, is not really near any major produce growing venue. With the new focus on the production side of the business, one wonders if attendance won’t suffer next year. Still, the United show is unique and it just might prosper.

Of course, the hope for eventual success is bound to raise another question: Why is United doing this show at all? United has defined its raison d’etre as government relations. So, why, exactly, should an association whose focus is government relations be running a trade show for logistics managers? These people have virtually no influence on their companies’ positions on government relations issues.

The key reason is money. The bane of United’s existence is the continual refusal of the industry to voluntarily support government relations. This continues to lead United to search for fundraising tools, such as trade shows, that are not closely aligned with the association’s core purpose. In the end, one wonders if United won’t be better off selling the show and focusing on the public policy issues that define the association’s purpose.

Still, that is a question for another day. For now, United has the right to raise a glass of champagne. A transition that was fraught with peril was handled with grace and no small degree of success. The phrase I started this column with celebrates the cyclical nature of existence, and it is in these cycles that success often is found. The truth is that the smallness of United’s show is a kind of strength. Many attendees said they found the intimate scale conducive to conversation and quality networking.

Within my lifetime I have watched the Produce Marketing Association grow from a show smaller than United’s 1997 show, into a behemoth that simply astounds. So United is dead, long live United. May this transition year turn out to be a foundation on which the industry and the association can build a record of service and success.