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As United departs Chicago, attendees offer praise for changes

CHICAGO — The United Fresh convention is ending its run in Chicago, but in its final year in the Windy City before relocating to San Diego in 2020, the association implemented a number changes designed to reinvigorate the annual gathering.unit

Among the changes were a new Produce Outlook Panel, featuring high-level thought leaders in the industry; a Partner X-Change, which paired 25 buyers and 25 vendors in a speed dating style format; a number of workshops and informational sessions on the show floor at the Main Stage and Stage Next areas; the Eats food court on the show floor featuring plant-based meal options utilizing sponsors’ products; and a late night party at the famous House of Blues.

Over all, the changes were very well received by attendees and exhibitors alike.

“My experience this year started with the Partner X-Change, which was very worthwhile for us,” said Kevin Barry, director of produce and floral at Big Y Foods in Springfield, MA. “We also had a produce manager who was honored with one of the Retail Produce Manager Awards. United does a lot for the industry, so we are happy to support their efforts. At the show, I saw a lot of new packaging and new varieties, which is always of interest to me as a retailer.”

At the BrightFarms booth, company officials noted that the changes implemented this year had the effect of promoting retailer engagement, which is a crucial part of the success of any produce show.

“I think the show was really energized by the changes this year, from the format to the programming to the entertainment,” said Abby Prior, vice president of marketing for the Irvington, NY-based company. “Also, the retailer engagement was fantastic.”

Paul Lightfoot, chief executive officer of BrightFarms, concurred, saying, “United has gone through great effort to attract retailers and keep them engaged, and the way they did that at this year’s show was a home run. We had a lot of interest from the retail community and we were able to showcase our now-proven model as being superior to traditional suppliers. Our product is a week fresher and with consistent supply that is not subject to gaps and shortages due to weather. Also, our product is much less vulnerable to food-safety issues, so retailers are not subject to the same risks. Let’s face it, retailers are tired of recalls, and we offer a solution to that problem.”

“United’s theme of ‘Change is Here’ was important and appropriate for this year’s show,” said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer for PureFlavor in Leamington, ON. “I thought all of the changes they implemented this year worked really well. We had consistent traffic to our booth and we were able to connect with many of our current retail and foodservice partners, and we even made some new contacts. It is very expensive to exhibit at these conventions, so I do my homework before we decide which shows we will participate in, and I found this show to be well worth the investment. We have already committed to booth space next year, and we’re very excited for what lies ahead in San Diego.”

“I thought United did a good job of promoting the changes,” said Marsha Verwiebe, communications manager for Volm Companies. “Of note to me was the focus on sustainability and new products. I also think the floor layout was very well done. And the programming was excellent because the issues that were covered are now at the forefront of the industry and everyone is looking for answers.”

“I definitely liked the format of the floor, including the Eats food court, which provided a good way to network and get people together,” said Leslie Simmons, vice president at Dave’s Specialty Imports. “The sessions on the floor were also very good and I liked the late night party at the House of Blues, which was another way to keep people together instead of having everyone go their separate ways. These were all tangible changes that provide a foundation to build on for next year in San Diego.”

“It seems like everyone has a trade show these days, so the programming becomes more and more important for trade shows to remain relevant,” said Paul Kneeland, executive director of fresh foods and floral at Gelson’s Market, based in Encino, CA. “I think United did a good job with this year’s convention. I liked the new changes they implemented, especially the Partner X-Change. At this year’s show, I was interested in learning more about the sustainability and packaging solutions. As a California retailer, we are facing a ban on plastics so as an industry we need to be looking at that.”

John Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration for United Fresh, said, “The board has made a tremendous investment in both time and resources to bring increased ROI to exhibitors, sponsors and attendees. Our goal was to deliver one of the best values ever for a United Fresh trade show.”

The United Fresh 2020 convention will be held June 16-18 in San Diego.