Opinion: Were Fresh Summit’s abbreviated show hours a success?

November 02 , 2017

From the pages of Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit

There is nothing else in the world like the annual PMA convention, which the association markets under the name “Fresh Summit.” There are larger events — Fruit Logistica in Berlin has more booths, covers more floor space and attracts almost four times the attendance. But Fresh Summit — having evolved from a small annual meeting of the association to one rich in non-trade show networking and educational programming — has a family feel that, on a national level, or even an international level in terms of interaction with the US, no other event of its scale can approach.

As such an important industry institution, it is worthwhile analyzing the role the event plays in the industry and, specifically, whether the change to a two-day trade show was beneficial. As we have gotten involved in producing events ourselves, from small executive share group meeting to The New York, London and Amsterdam Produce Shows and Conferences, we have acquired some particular expertise in assessing these things.

In addition to the change in schedule, people attending may have noticed that their badges this year included an RFID chip. It is not an inexpensive initiative, but RFID tracking can provide valuable information. It will be interesting to see how much of the data PMA collects through this tool it will release. You can set these systems up in various ways, but, fully executed, you can see exactly how many people went to an educational session, what percentage left early, how many registrants never showed up on the show floor, and, of those that did come to the floor, how much time did they actually spend there.

Implemented fully, RFID chips can also produce more subtle information, such as “heat” maps of where on the floor people went and where they spent their time.

It would be helpful if PMA releases this information, but we doubt they will release very much. The reason is not that PMA has bad numbers; PMA actually probably has very strong numbers compared to the global exhibition industry, but, inevitably, this data is going to be less than the gross counts that are now released. Of the number of people who registered, not all attend, and of those that do attend, not all are on the floor all day or even at all.

As to whether the reduction to a two-day show was a success… well, that depends on who you ask and how you define success.

And there are trends in the industry that have changed the way Fresh Summit is experienced that make this assessment more problematic.

Consolidation

Due to consolidation in the industry, Fresh Summit is a place where the largest vendors must play defense. If you are focusing on the domestic business and you already have the business from Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway, Kroger, Sysco, etc. — what important new customers can you gain during Fresh Summit? Not many. So, the goal at Fresh Summit for major vendors is to hold on to what they’ve got. This means that they want to have meetings, dinners, etc., with buyers for the principal purpose of keeping them from talking to other vendors that do not have their business or do not have very much of it.

Of course they try to make these meetings productive — develop new marketing strategies, analyze data, extend product lines, etc.. — but the strategic imperative, the “prime directive” spoken or unspoken, realized or sub-conscious, remains: Monopolize as much of their customers’ time as possible so as to minimize the time those customers have to identify and develop new vendors. 

So, a shorter show is generally a big win for the largest players. Because these are the most important vendor relationships, they will always get the meetings, the dinner reservations, the time in the hospitality suites, etc.

In other words, a shorter event guarantees that a higher percentage of the time of those on the buy side is occupied by existing vendor relationships. So, this means that the shorter the event is, the better it is for large established players and the harder it is for smaller companies trying to gain a place in the market.

The End of Transactional Buying

The other big trend that helps define the impact of a reduction in exhibit hours is the length of the average conversation. We’ve never seen any studies on this, but it is clear that the produce industry has become more complicated than it used to be. We launched Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESSmagazine in 1985 at the PMA convention in San Francisco and the typical ad in the trade press was still: “Joe Smith & Co., city, state, shipping tomatoes April through June, and a phone number.”

It was always good, of course, to see one’s customers and suppliers in person. The produce industry, by its nature, is prone to problems — quality, delivery, etc. – so knowing who you are dealing with on a personal level is helpful. But it was not uncommon to deal with people for decades and never meet them. There was no food safety to discuss, no sustainability, no proprietary varieties, no marketing support… in fact, PRODUCE BUSINESS used to run articles about the “fax auction,” as shippers complained that all too many purchase decisions were made based on competitors just faxing over prices.

Now those same accounts have quarterly business reviews sometimes at Fresh Summit. The discussions are deeper and encompass more details. There is contract pricing and exclusivity, marketing support and food safety, sustainability issues and much more. Here at the Pundit, our average meeting time with an executive was an hour-and-a-half. Now it is great that we could get these meetings in, and one function Fresh Summit serves is to save us money on travel expenses. But we found the best an individual could do was ten meetings over the two days of PMA. Since, obviously, if we can only see ten people, or even 40 or 50 people assuming we have multiple executives seeing other people, we are going to see our big existing accounts. So, once again, Fresh Summit is an occasion to play defense.

There just are not enough hours to be out there seeing the smaller, less-established players in any significant way.

Peculiarities of Layout

Every convention center is different, and New Orleans happens to have a long and skinny layout. A consequence of this is that people don’t want to walk back and forth through each aisle, so our impression – it would be really interesting to see that heat map – is that attendees stayed heavily in the center aisles rather than the wing aisles where there are smaller booths mainly composed of newer exhibitors or just smaller companies.

Again though, shorter hours mean the high density “highway” booths will get a disproportionate share of the traffic and, not surprisingly, as booths are distributed based on a point system that includes both quantity of booths taken and longevity, smaller, less well-established vendors will be disproportionately disadvantaged by shorter hours when that means attendees will limit their booth visitations to higher-traffic lanes.

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Of course, all this may not matter at all… one of the main reasons for moving to a shorter show was the belief that the last day of the show was of low value anyway. But this becomes a chicken-and-egg kind of situation. The decision-makers at exhibitors often left early, and this frustrated any real buyers left on the floor who were confronted with models handing out salad rather than key decision-makers. On the other hand, those key decision-makers at exhibitors who stayed found the last few hours empty or filled with scavengers looking to collect swag. So, in this sense, we could eliminate these low value hours and nobody is actually worse off.

Of course, the crucial aspect here is whether, in fact, shortening the show leads people to stay until the show is finished. Perhaps people who leave early at three-day shows do so because they feel they can accomplish what they need in two days, and so they will stay for the entirety of a two-day show because they need those two days to accomplish their mission. On the other hand, perhaps there are people who always feel they can abandon the last few hours of any event.

It is probably a bit of a mix between the two attitudes but, anecdotally, we saw lots of evidence of top people leaving early. We left our own booth the last 2 hours of the show to do a quick scan of the show and to say hello to about 20 specific people who we hadn’t managed to see this convention. As our contacts weigh heavily toward owners or CEOs, it is probably a pretty good check of who was staying to the end.  We won’t embarrass those who had left, but we can give some props to Steve Barnard at Mission Produce as he was the ONLY person on our 20-person hit list to actually be in his booth at the end. We were told that four of the other people were still in town but had gone back to the hotel, and we were told the remaining 15 had left New Orleans to either go home or to other locations.

Our experience is that people look at the available flights, and if the last departure is, say, 6:00 PM, and that means they have to leave an event at 3:30 PM rather than wait for a 5:00 PM close, then most people, with a staff to back them up, do it. They consider the loss of not being there until 5:00 PM to be a fair price to pay to save a hotel cost for the night and to get out of town and back to family and other work.

Again, though this reduction in hours is not experienced equally by all vendors, the large companies have the staff to let their CEOs go home and leave the booths to others. At most smaller companies, the owners are the exhibiting personnel. So, those last few hours or the last day when the big company booths are manned by lower level staff, the smaller more upstart vendors always had the advantage of having their owners and CEOs there and thus providing a more satisfactory experience for engagement by the buyers who did stick it out.  Cutting off those last hours or day reduces the time when the small guys actually had an edge.

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Now, none of this is to say it was a mistake to cut the hours. The extra day was an enormous expense, and the clear consensus of PMA’s survey and committee input was that eliminating the day was a benefit. But that doesn’t mean cutting back equally impacts all segments of the industry and how these changes affect different sectors is worth paying attention to.

What is clear is that good idea or bad, the changes create a need for smaller companies to be more aggressive in their exhibiting efforts.

We are often shocked at the number of exhibitors who think of exhibiting as a passive process; they expect that they will show up and buyers shall be presented before them. Even on the floor they are passive. Many can be observed looking at their cell phones as crowds walk by as if the buyers will wait politely for them to finish their call!

In fact, the exhibitors who are most successful are the ones who work the hardest to attract prospects to their booths. This process involves reaching out long before they get into town and creating the kind of exhibiting environment that is not focused on displaying what the exhibitor wants to sell but, rather, is focused on thinking about what is valuable for the buying community. Unless the product being offered is particularly unique, merely displaying the product is unlikely to position your company as a solution to the buyers’ problems.

Obstacles or not, there is so much opportunity at Fresh Summit that if a vendor finds he can’t make a profit at the show, that speaks more to the vendors’ limitations in marketing and sales than it does to any problem with PMA’s now abbreviated hours.

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