( Courtesy United Fresh Produce Association )

The United Fresh Produce Association has swapped the traditional trade show planned for San Diego in June for an online event.

The virtual event will be free and will still connect customers, suppliers and members of the industry the week of June 15, United Fresh leaders said.

In a call with media members on March 31, United Fresh president and CEO Tom Stenzel said the investment in the online show will be valuable for those participate.

“Sadly, with COVID-19 we’re not going to be able to be in-person in San Diego in June,” he said. “But we’re excited as we can be to be  launching a new live face-to-face online platform that we think is really going to add value to the fresh produce industry,” Stenzel said.

United Fresh 2020 LIVE! will begin the week of June 15, he said, and will include presentations, roundtable discussion groups, networking events and an “expo floor” where exhibitors and attendees can share information, view videos and other content and chat live.

“A month ago, when we started seeing shows canceled, ... the whole staff team here we were hanging our heads and thinking about what it would mean to cancel, both financially but also in the lack of connection for our industry,” Stenzel said.

By offering the virtual show, Stenzel said United Fresh is an early adopter in creating online connections when physical connections aren’t possible.

“We haven’t seen another big trade association convention do this; I think we’re going (see) more do so in the future,” he said.

The virtual show software, which United Fresh didn’t name, is customizable, Stenzel said.

“We’ll be working with each of our exhibitors to design their own booth online,” he said.

During the call with trade media, Stenzel said United Fresh was not yet to ready to preview the virtual show experience but said that those previews would be coming soon. 

For the virtual event, Stenzel said that United Fresh will present multiple episodes of live programming during that week of June 15. At the same time, the event will feature multiple small discussion areas, lounges where people can meet and interact and chat.

“You can click to chat with anyone else who’s online at the same time,” he said. “If you see someone who is not online, you can still e-mail them. So, you’ll be able to connect with people and set up those personal chats 24/7,” he said.

Awards and recognition

Stenzel said United Fresh will still honor retail store managers at the show but do so in a different way.

“(Retail produce managers) are going to have a dialogue with us and (have) questions and answers with our attendees,” he said. Instead of just those select retail produce managers talking to people in a convention hall, the software will allow everyone in those retail organizations all over the country to be able to share that moment online.

“We’ll record it so the produce managers who are working in the other hundred different stores of that chain can see it when they go home that night,” he said.

Responding to a question about whether the virtual show will be the new way to meet, Stenzel said it may be utilized in the future, but he insisted  United Fresh will never give up in-person events.

“As soon as we can, we are going to get back to live events,” he said, noting that the expectation is that United Fresh will have its Washington Conference in September as planned.

Industry support

United Fresh is responding to a new world of social distancing and limited travel for non-essential businesses while still helping the industry to stay connected, Michael Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods, and chairman of the United Fresh board of directors, said to media members in a briefing on March 31. 

“Our industry is starving for information and United Fresh plays a vital role in providing those answers,” he said. 

Calling the COVID-19 outbreak “unprecedented,” Muzyk said the online event will be a model for other associations and the industry.

“The entire board of directors of United Fresh was unanimous and extremely excited about this new platform,” he said. The world calls for fast and nimble responses, and Muzyk said United Fresh is fast.

“I think this will become an industry standard,” Muzyk said. “We all have watched multitudes of shows canceled without a solution, but this will be, or some version of it, will be the solution to COVID-19,” he said.

Muzyk said industry exhibitors and attendees who  won’t spend money on hotels and airline tickets to San Diego can support the digital show.

“We have had just overwhelming participation of exhibitors saying, ‘We’re in,’ because United provides so much more than just the show,” he said. “Everybody that we’ve asked, ‘Hey, the savings that you’ll achieve from not coming to an in-person show, would you still apply some of the costs associated with having a booth and let United Fresh do this (online) platform?” he said. Existing exhibitors are saying yes, and new exhibitors are showing up to participate, he said. 

United Fresh will be working with exhibitors and sponsors to deliver live online events, content and new connections to industry members, said Danny Dumas, senior vice president of North American sales, marketing and product management for Del Monte Fresh Produce and chairman-elect of United Fresh.

Speaking to trade media on March 31, Dumas said the virtual event will impress.

“Based on the presentation I saw, I was extremely enthusiastic, like the remainder of the board was, to see what we have in store,” he said.

“Del Monte Fresh Produce is an important exhibitor at United Fresh, and we’re very excited to have this opportunity to interact with our customers and with other stakeholders in the industry,” he said.

“The way we see it we’re going to be able to basically man the (virtual) booth as we would normally have,” he said, noting that Del Monte staff will be on call to answer questions and provide feedback.

“It will be completely different, and the only sad thing is we won’t get to see all of you in person,” he said. In addition, Dumas said the online format will allow greater numbers of international produce professionals to participate.

Stenzel said the United Fresh show has about 250 exhibitors and many of them have already indicated they will participate in the virtual show.

Each will have a virtual booth with their own branding, their own marketing materials, their own contacts, he said.

Muzyk said the online platform will allow virtual participants to virtually “walk” through the trade show.

Major retailers who want to bring 10 to 15 people to the show can do so with the online show, where they may have been limited to just a few staff for the in-person event.

United Fresh LIVE! will debut at www.unitedfreshlive.org, with preliminary information and sneak peaks in the coming weeks.

John Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration, is working with exhibitors on the new show plans, according to United Fresh. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

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