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United Fresh Goes Virtual and Grows Attendance and Exhibits

Sue Pelletier
, Senior Editor
July 24, 2020
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The United Fresh Produce Association has lived through a lot in its 115 years, from the Great Depression to the Cold War to the global recession of the early 2000s.
 
And it will get through the coronavirus pandemic as well, though not without a few changes, said John Toner, United Fresh’s Vice President of Convention and Industry Collaboration. The biggest change for UFPA was to take its 116th annual trade show, which was to take up approximately 70,000 net square feet in San Diego, the week of June 15, virtual.
 
And it was a smashing success.
 
Dubbed United Fresh LIVE!, the virtual expo, held over the same dates, actually drew more attendees — 7,500, as opposed to last year’s 5,000 — from more international destinations (75, compared to the usual 30) than the traditional live expo. And, though about 75 of the 280 exhibiting companies who usually would have signed up did bow out of the virtual show, the event more than made up the difference with new exhibitors eager to reach a national audience they otherwise wouldn’t have had a platform to meet. 
 
Finagling the Financials
Apparently, the price to exhibit in United Fresh LIVE!, which was the same as it would have been for the in-person expo, wasn’t a deterrent. “We have 13 companies that wanted to exhibit but we ran out of time to make that happen before we went live in June,” said Toner. 
 
The uptick in attendees may have had something to do with waiving the fee to attend, Toner admits. “Everyone was taking down their paywalls in March and April to deal with COVID-19, so we did the same. If you don’t have people on the platform, you don’t have happy exhibitors.”
 
UFPA asked attendees for voluntary donations, which some did make, though not all. “Was the donation campaign as successful as we would have liked? No. But we have gotten significant donations even from companies that couldn’t participate in the convention,” Toner said. “Everyone is challenged in the current environment, but individuals and companies are still supporting the association.”
 
Keys to Success: Networking, Business, Education
The association made the decision to go virtual nine weeks out from the expo dates. “There was no death by committee” when it came to hammering out the details involved in making the switch, including whether to go with a 2- or 3D platform, said Toner. (They went with 3D to be able to provide a more robust experience.) “Our CEO, Tom Stenzel, who has been with United Fresh for 30 years, stepped in to ensure decisions were made quickly.” 
 
The key underpinnings of every decision were networking, business development, and education, he added. Companies that were planning to launch new products at the in-person expo were happy to have an outlet to discuss their new developments. Educational sessions were held over Zoom, “since that’s the platform most people are already comfortable with,” said Toner.
 
Exhibitors and sponsors also had the option to link off their virtual booths to their own networking events and activations, which was popular with both exhibitors and attendees, he said.
 
Taking It Year-Round
UFPA is keeping the expo platform, including virtual booths and all educational content, available through Sept. 1, and are adding new content and networking events as well “to keep people moving through the site,” said Toner, In September, they will shut down temporarily to revamp the platform to maximize what they’ve learned through the process. 
 
Once it reopens, the renamed United Fresh 365 will be a year-round resource designed to enable buyers and sellers to connect on a daily basis, Toner said. Free to members, non-members will pay $100 to access the platform, while exhibitors will be charged $6,000 for a year-round presence, he said, adding that his team is ready to step in and help drive traffic for exhibitors that don’t perform up to expectations. 
 
“It’s exciting to help the association live, every day, its promise to be a matchmaker for the buyers and sellers in the fresh product industry,” Toner said.
 
Reach John Toner at (202) 303-3424 or jtoner@unitedfresh.org.
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