United Fresh took a leap with a virtual show this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ( The Packer )

Fresh produce companies that exhibited at the United Fresh Live! virtual trade show praised the organization for adapting amid the COVID-19 pandemic and creating a positive experience despite having to hold the event online.

Mayda Sotomayor, CEO of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet and a board member of the United Fresh Produce Association, said the virtual show was a hard sell initially but that United broke new ground by finding ways to emulate some of the key aspects of traditional trade shows, along with adding new tools.

“When Tom (Stenzel) and the team told us about this, we were just shaking our heads, saying — this was like three months ago — we were shaking our heads, saying, ‘No, there’s no way, we can’t imagine,’ and now it’s a for-real thing, and I think we’ve made history,” Sotomayor said. “The board really was courageous on taking the leap, and the staff on United, I know how hard they worked, so I think that everyone is very pleased.”

She noted that connecting with buyers to the degree that happens on a traditional show floor was a challenge, but she added that, by the end of Power Hours the third day of the show, Seald Sweet had already had more than 1,000 visitors to its booth, probably more than it would have had at a traditional expo, along with lots of downloads of its content.

“I think we expanded our possibilities as much as we could, and some things we probably would never have done in a booth, present, face-to-face, we were able to do in our virtual booth,” Sotomayor said, noting that the company’s booth schedule included virtual meetings with growers from around the world and the company’s category managers, plus a facility tour.

Measuring success

Elad Mardix, president of Israel-based technology solutions company ClariFruit, which had a booth in the FutureTEC zone, said that while the biggest downside of the virtual booth is the difficultly of creating relationships, there are some advantages to the format.

“I have my list of targets, and even if they are not online, as long as I can make my pitch compelling enough, I can get them to a web seminar,” Mardix said.

The virtual platform allows exhibitors to see all the people who come to the booth and how they interacted with the content.

“Did they open your brochure? Did they look at your video? Did they try the demo? So you actually have much better indication on the intent (of attendees),” Mardix said. “Essentially it allows you to get to a much wider audience and actually pinpoint the person you need, even if he’s not there.

“At (an in-person) trade show, if guy’s not there, the guy’s not there,” Mardix said.

He added that, if the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit takes place this year, organizers will need figure out how to combine the advantages of the in-person event with the data insights offered by a virtual trade show.

Brian Klesmith, senior business development manager for national accounts for Bancroft, Wis.-based RPE, also mentioned the analytics tool of the platform as a plus.

“You can kind of see where the retailers are going,” Klesmith said. “It gives us a feel for what they like and maybe the directions that we need to go in the future.”

He also noted that the virtual booth, which has places to feature documents, videos and other brand assets, also exposes attendees to more information than they might be able to absorb during an in-person show.

“For the retailer, it gives a little bit better scope, maybe, of things that we’re able to do, rather than just talking on the floor about one individual product,” Klesmith said.

Ande Manos, director of sales and marketing for Santa Maria, Calif.-based Babé Farms Specialties, reported good traffic.

“We’ve seen a wide range of visitors in our virtual booth,” Manos said. “We’re in the process of evaluating and responding to all viable leads.”

Platform for conversation

Mark Munger, vice president of sales and marketing for Los Angeles-based 4Earth Farms, mentioned that the online booth has been a springboard for offline interaction.

“The success of the virtual show is having your sales team buy into the concept,” Munger said, noting that a number of buyers visited on the first day of the show and were engaged. “We are finding that they look at our booth and then call us real-time to ask questions. We had several good conversations (Monday), and it’s always a positive sign when a customer calls with strong interest in an item.”

Beyond the show floor, education opportunities ranged from general sessions to workshops to “coffee talks,” which featured input from any attendees who wanted to contribute. Networking receptions were held on Zoom, with attendees split into groups that were reshuffled several times throughout the hour.

“Seeing so many people in the various breakouts during the receptions has been a highlight for me,” said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission. “The general sessions have been really good as well. I have visited a number of the booths and agree with your team’s comments (in recent videos) about the opportunity to see and hear someone talk via video as being a plus.

“All in all it has been a good experience, with potential for certain aspects to continue even when we are all able to be attending conventions and meetings again in person,” DeLyser said.

Andrew Carne, sales coordinator of Madison, Wis.-based Kronen Corp., said he has been talking with colleagues about the impressive job United Fresh did putting this interactive event together in such a short time.

“And this is the version 1.0. It’s a great first version,” Carne said. “It’s a new world. Everything is always changing.”

Editor-in-chief Tom Karst and Northeast editor Amy Sowder contributed to this report.

Check out much more show coverage here, including articles and videos on general sessions, workshops and company booths.