The 2018 New York Produce Show and Conference in Manhattan drew more people than ever. The other events besides the trade show were packed too. ( Amy Sowder )

Trade shows have to be more than trade shows in order to stand out.

Since its start nine years ago, the New York Produce Show and Conference has developed several layers of depth and breadth to make this show much more for the estimated nearly 6,000 visitors than simply touring the almost 400 exhibitor booths Dec. 10-13 in Manhattan.

“We have extra conferences in addition to the show. There are also bus tours in Manhattan, to Brooklyn, Hunts Point, New Jersey and Philadelphia,” said Susan McAleavey Sarlund, executive director of the Eastern Produce Council, before the show. She’s also Northeast sales manager for the New York Apple Association.

The council, founded in 1966, is a cofounder of the show.

This year culminated the completion of the inaugural EPC Leadership Program, which provides several classroom and field experiences throughout the year to foster professional development in people with fewer than 10 years’ experience in the industry.

The 14 selected students attended their program’s final event — Cornell University’s Foundational Excellence Program — Dec. 10, as a pre-show activity.

Then they stood up to receive recognition and applause for graduating, two days later at the keynote breakfast before the trade show opened.

“I’m most proud of the leadership program and that our first class will graduate at the show. It’s almost like seeing your own child grow up and graduate. We’ve been planning this for so long,” said Marianne Santo, council president, before the event.

Santo, senior category manager of produce and floral at Wakefern Food Corp., Keasbey, N.J., planned the leadership program with Sarlund and Al Murray, a council board director from the New Jersey Agricultural Society.

Expo visitors watched chefs whip up some fresh culinary creations at the live demonstrations throughout the day and noshed on a full lunch served inside the Central Park section, located in the middle of the trade show floor.

Scholarship winners from two culinary schools competed to make the best meal from produce items they foraged from trade show booths during the show.

A series of educational micro-sessions drew visitors to leave the main trade show hall.

The experts on all sorts of hot-button issues — from agriculture to retail with safety and demographic trends in the mix — led talks, each session less than an hour.

The day before the trade show, visitors packed the sessions of daylong Global Trade Symposium, which gave more “breadth of what’s happening around the world,” Sarlund said.

Discussions focused on the disruption of established import and export markets and how to feed the world’s future consumers.

“I think the show is getting more of a global attendance and more of a focus on value-added products, whether it’s shop-from-home or culinary setups in stores, to bring customers in who don’t shop like they used to,” Santo said.

Besides the networking opportunities, the bottom line is the show is simply a great way to get new customers and find new products.

About 40% of the visitors are buyers, Sarlund said.

The key is to mix the benefits of global thinking and local advantages.

“Bigger shows are great, but sometimes retailers, wholesalers and buyers can’t travel out of the area ...because of time and biz constraints. There’s a great value to the face-to-face contact,” Santo said.

“If we’re getting consumers in general to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, then, as a show and an industry, we’re doing our job.”