In the space of about three weeks, I attended three very different trade shows. Each had its own niche, a valuable place in the industry.
I started with the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure in Orlando. This is a huge event with a scale and grandeur not typically seen in the rest of agriculture. 
One of our event planners from the Farm Journal side attended the opening reception and the magicians and Cirque de Soleil-esque performers blew her away — not to mention the amazing food, open bars, huge crowds, games, costumes and other entertainment. 
Does she see this kind of stuff on the row crop side? Definitely not. 
Then, in late March, I went to the Fresh Produce and Floral Council’s Northern California Expo and to Spokane, Wash., for the Peirone Produce Spring and Summer Expo. 
I try to make it to the FPFC’s event as often as I can. The Bay Area is ripe for store checking for me, and that show typically has strong attendance.

About those attendees

The thing that stands out for these FPFC events is the number of in-store personnel in attendance. They typically show up in waves and go home with armloads of swag. It’s really difficult for me, as a lowly trade journalist, to do the booth-to-booth thing here because every time I’m talking to someone, a “red badge” shows up behind me. I typically step away when that happens. I may or may not make it back. 
Are those exhibitors going to go home with armloads of purchase orders? Probably not, but they’ve gotten an opportunity to connect one-on-one with valuable sources of information: front line personnel. 
Who better to kick the tires on a new product than the person in charge of selling it to the end consumer? And who better to plant a bug in the corporate buyer’s ear about that really nifty thing they saw at that trade show? 
Raley’s Family of Fine Stores does its best to get as many in-store people to the show as possible. Greg Corrigan, senior director of produce for the Sacramento, Calif.-based chain, has told me on several occasions that they want to make sure their front-line people are engaged in the industry. 
They even have a Produce is our Passion program, in which their store-level personnel compete to win a trip to do on-farm tours at the end of the summer. It builds community, pride and excitement with people who may not have other opportunities for career development within the industry. 

Even more in-store

Speaking of not having an opportunity to mingle with the industry … it’s not the easiest thing in the world to lure someone to the bright metropolis that is Spokane. 

Who better to kick the tires on a new product than the person in charge of selling it to the end consumer? And who better to plant a bug in the corporate buyer’s ear about that really nifty thing they saw at that trade show? 

I actually was a speaker at Peirone Produce’s fall show back in September, and it was a fantastic experience. 
I recommended they talk with Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics as a presenter for this go-around. Roerink is the author of the Food Marketing Institute’s Power of Produce study, which I’d seen at the United Fresh show in Chicago. 
Roerink and Mike Kamphaus, president of Peirone Produce, presented the study to a standing-room-only crowd of 100+ retailers. This kind of audience is invaluable for someone like me, and Roerink told me after the presentation this was one of her favorite type of crowds to present to, as well.
I never see more engaged audiences than the ones I see at smaller, more intimate shows. Hands are in the air, questions are asked and presenters are challenged to prove themselves. 
I talked with a few retailers about what they thought of attending a show like Peirone’s. One guy said his company hadn’t sent someone to a trade show in 10 years — not even the National Grocers Association convention.
Another gal I talked to said she specifically talked to at least a dozen vendors about trialing their products in her stores. She said the items were a perfect fit for her customers. 
Independents, especially rural ones, are a huge challenge for both produce consumption and for vendor outreach. There’s a tremendous opportunity, as well.
I know the trade show life isn’t easy — or cheap — but believe me, exhibitors, you’re appreciated. 
Pamela Riemenschneider is editor of Produce Retailer magazine. E-mail her at [email protected].
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.