“Change is here.”
That’s the message the United Fresh Produce Association proclaimed to the industry ahead of the 2019 United Fresh Produce Expo, and it’s the message many of us had on our minds as we stepped onto the show floor this past Tuesday in Chicago. With promises of unique experiences, deeper engagement, and new ways of doing business, attendees and exhibitors alike approached the show with excitement and anticipation.
In 2018, we pondered what was next for the United Fresh Convention, and it is clear that United Fresh leadership knew changes were needed. Cindy Jewell, United Fresh Board Chairwoman, worked with the board to create a volunteer leadership committee dedicated to improving the event’s value for exhibitors and attendees. We’re happy to report that the association listened to its membership and made 2019 a transformational year for the convention. United Fresh delivered on their “change is here” message, and there are even more exciting opportunities for further improvements when the show moves to San Diego next year (we can’t wait for this, by the way!). Here’s what we believe United Fresh did really well in 2019--as well as what we think can be improved upon in 2020:
The 2019 United Fresh Convention: What Went Well
2019 was a transformational year for the United Fresh Convention. In terms of event upgrades, here’s what we believe went really well:
The Welcoming Registration Area
With a DJ on staff playing pop music, an easy-to-access badge printing station and a quick bite from registration area sponsor Five Star Gourmet Foods, attendees were fed and happy before they ever stepped foot on the show floor.
The United Fresh Late Night Party
Talk about a great time! The House of Blues Chicago was bursting at the seams with enthusiasts of produce and music alike seeking to blow off some steam, assisted by an excellent cover band...and a surprise guest. Believe us when we say the place virtually erupted with excitement when Steve Augeri, former lead singer of Journey, walked onto the stage to serenade us. The inclusive nature of this party, along with the excitement and buzz leading up to it, made it a HIT as far as we were concerned!
United Fresh Women in Produce Breakfast
This event, a celebration near and dear to our hearts, was reimagined this year and shifted from a cocktail reception to the morning general session. Though initially uncertain what the response would be given the tremendous success with the previous format, we were ecstatic to see a room of 600+ people eager to celebrate with and learn from this year’s recipient, Jan Berk, COO of San Miguel Produce. We are certain Jan’s inspiring journey and her unique storytelling style is the cornerstone for the great success of this year’s breakfast. Other special touches include the champagne toast (a nice touch thanks to our friends at Frieda’s Specialty Produce and D’Arrigo’s) and the opening remarks by Shannon Shuman, President of The Packer, which were a gentle and compelling reminder of the importance of recognizing and elevating women in the fresh produce industry.
Miss the event? Check out the video of Jan’s concluding remarks (which included some excellent bits of wisdom):
The “Eats” Lunch Area on the Show Floor
In keeping with the decision to upgrade the registration area, the show organizers utilized the EATS area, located in the center/back of the floor, to folks well-fed throughout the show. For $25, attendees could select a fresh lunch from amongst four stations, each offering different flavor profiles and entree options for hungry attendees. In our opinion, the price was well worth it for the opportunity to have a nice meal without having to leave the show floor. This is a smart move on the part of United Fresh!
The Focus on School Foodservice
The work in school foodservice is, in our opinion, a less recognized “crown jewel” of United Fresh, and we are excited about the significant contribution the niche is making to this emerging business for fresh produce. In conjunction with the convention, United Fresh hosted the School Foodservice Forum bringing school foodservice directors from across the U.S. to interact and share with fresh produce suppliers. We were blown away hearing from foodservice directors in our own backyard of Dallas, as well as neighboring Austin, about the volume of and creativity with which fresh produce is now provided in schools.
The Quality of Foot Traffic
During a tradeshow, success is often measured by the number of people who actually attend, and while this can be a measure of success, but that certainly does not mean it is the most important parameter. While we did notice a healthy amount of foot traffic on the show floor on Tuesday, we couldn’t help but notice the dwindling attendance on Wednesday. As volunteer members of the United Fresh Marketing and Merchandising Council, it is our duty to ask exhibitors about their sales experience at the show, and we will say that when we met with many exhibiting companies, very few seemed disappointed in the retail buyer turnout at the show. In fact, representatives from one company even said that all of the business they needed to do was already complete by mid-afternoon on Tuesday!
The 2019 United Fresh Convention: Special Exhibitor & Product Shout-Outs
Of course, the impact of the above changes wasn’t the only thing that stood out to us last week. Several exhibitors blew us away with their creative booth presence and innovative product launches, including:
The New Fresh Ramen Products from Pearson Foods
We admit, product sampling with a ramen lead-in caught us off-guard on a show floor built around fresh. However, after talking with the booth team, we quickly learned that their ramen kits were simply a smart product line extension. As a fresh produce processor striving to deliver innovative solutions, Pearson is leveraging the hot ramen trend by creating a quick and easy fresh meal solution that incorporates the company’s shredded vegetables alongside the noodles and broth base found in the kit. We must say, we love fresh produce innovation, and we sure love us some ramen too!
The Artist in California Giant’s Booth
This year, California Giant wanted to create a more interactive presence in the booth by inviting visitors to “leave their mark” on Chicago to celebrate the years spent in the city, along with what’s to come in the future. A local artist sketched the Chicago skyline and then added coordinating symbols, hand prints and signatures from industry members onto the painted sky overlooking the city at which we’ve all celebrated United Fresh for the past 5 years. If you look closely there "might be" a Dolly Parton sketch wearing berry earrings!
Simply Fresh’s Booth & Sponsorship “Outside” the Show Floor
Simply Fresh made a wise show investment with its unique and highly accessible booth, which was located outside the show floor in the registration area. Not only did all the show attendees have to pass by the booth to access the show floor, but the lively music and natural hustle and bustle of the registration area also made for a lively environment to showcase products and distribute samples.
Crunch Pak’s New Sliced Pears
Introduced to the market last month, Crunch Pak’s value-added line of sliced, peeled and diced pears won the Innovation Award for Best New Fruit Product at United Fresh. We’re always big fans of easy, on-the-go-snacking solutions, and we expect this one to be a hot at retail!
Fox Packaging’s New Eco-Friendly Pouch Bags
In response to increasing interest in more sustainable packaging solutions, Fox Packaging debuted two new product offerings, the #4 Eco Stand-Up™ bag and the #2 HD Stand-Up™ bag. We were especially excited about the #4 Eco Stand-Up™ bag, which employs the same stand-up format as the traditional Fox Stand-Up Combo® bag but features a new, environmentally friendly substrate. Kudos to Fox for this use of renewable agricultural resources to help reduce waste!
A Chocolate & Almond Toffee Exhibitor
We were delighted to see this confectionary booth--and first-time United Fresh exhibitor--showcased front and center near the Main Stage, where any hungry marketer with a sweet tooth could grab a nibble while walking by. To the team at Enstrom Candies: thank you for the sweet bites and great conversations about your business!
The 2019 United Fresh Convention: What We Hope Will Be Better in 2020
With the upcoming move back to the West Coast in sunny San Diego, we can already predict that United Fresh is set up for an even more successful show next year! Here are a few areas we hope to see improve in 2020:
The Quantity of Foot Traffic
While we wholeheartedly agree that quality matters much more than quantity, it would be great to see heavier foot traffic that lasts all the way through the end of the show. (Alternately, perhaps it is time for United to consider a smaller venue for the years to come?) We have heard, however, that United is already ahead on booth sales for next year, so we’re feeling hopeful that the west coast move will draw in bigger crowds--including buyers--in 2020.
Exhibitors Leaving Early
While we didn’t see a lot of early booth breakdown during the last couple hours of the show, it was apparent that many booth workers “checked out” early, leaving booths noticeably less staffed (and sometimes unmanned). It can be hard to find a good balance given the low traffic that last couple hours, so we look forward to healthy conversation on continued improvement in this area.
Some Sessions Weren’t Well Attended
We loved this year’s foot-saving ease of simply scooting over to the Main Stage area on the show floor for educational sessions! But while the Winning in Today’s Food Media session and Celebrate Innovation: Awards Winners Announced were noticeably well-attended, many other sessions were marked by a sea of empty seats. Having participated in programming ourselves, we understand (and can empathize about!) the amount of time and preparation required to organize speakers and build the content necessary for quality educational sessions. We encourage open dialogue from attendees to help United leadership shape stronger session attendance next year.
The Smart Food Exhibit Area Missing
We greatly missed seeing the “Smart Food” exhibit area we enjoyed in 2018. With so many companies jumping on the “plant-based” trend, it would be excellent to see more of them represented on the show floor in 2020. We were delighted to meet with first-time exhibitor Pearson Foods and would love to see more entrepreneurial businesses and trend-setters present at the show and working to elevate fresh!
Overall, we are big fans of the improvements we saw at United Fresh this year, and we think it’s safe to say the association delivered on its promise: change is indeed here, and we can’t wait to see the show continue to up the ante and elevate the exhibitor and attendee experience in San Diego in 2020!
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