By Craig Stauffer
29 九月 2020

From the CEO’s Desk: The Benefits and Challenges of Virtual Produce Shows in 2020

Over the past few months, we have discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on growers, consumers, and the supply chain in between. Our industry is adapting more than ever lately – and it does not stop with growing, harvesting, packing, and marketing fresh produce.

Every year, thousands of fresh produce professionals gather at many annual conferences in Europe, South America, North America, and Asia just to name a few.   What is always called out as one of the greatest benefits of these gatherings is the ability to connect face-to-face and build important relationships.

And it is not just external relationships. If you have had a chance to read any of our Behind the Produce Q&A features with Vanguard employees, you will notice that most often, their fond memories of working with Vanguard date back to these annual conferences. This is a result of having the chance to connect and interact with their colleagues from around the globe – a rarity in our industry as many miles of land and ocean separate us.

There are global shows and regional shows – all of which provide unique benefits to participants. Two shows that will soon be coming to the virtual world of conferences are PMA (Produce Marketing Association) Fresh Summit and Asia Fruit Logistica.

Next up in October is PMA Fresh Summit that occurs annually. PMA has adapted quickly, and developed a virtual event supported by impressive artificial intelligence (AI), in which exhibitors assume a ‘Marketplace Page’ that can be found through keyword searches by patrons. There is tiered access that you are able to pay for, and participants/exhibitors receive entry passes to spread across their organization or network. Private meetings can be held between vendors or individuals within the AI platform.

As an active member of the industry, Vanguard has attended this conference for the last 30 years.  For Vanguard Peru, many ”plans” for North American importers of Peruvian grapes are cemented at this event. We are an industry that takes great care to nurture relationships.  We take pride in that fact that we do millions of dollars’ worth of transactions on a handshake.

In this brave new world of virtual trade shows the question becomes: how best to participate? How is it best to leverage sales collateral and connect with the industry through this virtual platform?

What are the potential positive outcomes of a virtual show?

Virtual shows unlock the potential to include more employees, work on a flexible schedule, and garner a higher return on investment.

First, attendance grows! Usually, an organization can’t afford to have all of their staff outside of the office to join conferences. Virtual events allow more employees to join from the comfort of their homes or desks, reaching deeper into the organization to increase knowledge and exposure to information from the conference. As well, more employees will be available for virtual meetings. A perfect example of this being beneficial is when it comes to retailers. Retailers are highly sought-out, and it is often mused that the few representatives present at the conference can barely get a moment to themselves! This platform allows for scheduling virtual meetings in advance with access to more representatives.

In addition, unlike a typical show format where your day is defined by a schedule, a virtual conference allows for the attendance of educational sessions when they best suit your personal workday. As well, sales conversations may occur at your convenience based on available times entered into a meeting scheduler.

Rather than the usual booth or stand, a virtual show urges you to create a ‘digital stand’, or in the case of the PMA, a ‘marketplace page’. This is likely to attract a lot of first-time exhibitors who look for a chance to stand out that might not have been as possible in the non-virtual world. Time will tell if the hope for a higher return on investment is actually achieved. Typically, exhibitors that have been there for years gain the best physical positions in a conference space. The AI Matchmaking Technology used for this year’s PMA Fresh Summit uses behaviors of participants to guide their search, while using strategic keywords to show up in searches of the participants. It is highly functional and should allow for more exposure to your page.

Furthermore, exhibitors are better able to track this return on investment by understanding metrics from the AI system, such as number of page views, number of meetings, number of website referrals, and more. There is the potential to have a great deal more exposure to your key market, as it is quite easy to visit exhibitors with a click of a button than on foot in the crush of many people. As well, reviewing these analytics may unveil untapped marketing potential and give access to new valuable information.

Let’s look at the implications of a virtual show

Building a virtual page while considering all the stipulations inclusive of refining messaging, building out keywords strategically, organizing photos and videos, and educating a team on how to manage meetings within the scheduler can be onerous! It will be important to coordinate advertising of your keywords and page, so your important connections know how to find you. Not to mention analyzing metrics post-show can only be valuable with someone on the team capable to do so (and with enough time!) Many of the large exhibitors that attend these shows have limited marketing team members. With marketing demands at an all-time high, it creates strain on organizational resources and potentially would require additional marketing help.

Trade shows typically require many resources and materials to attend in-person, and only the largest companies could consider participation at all of them around the globe. As well, it’s been heard in the trenches that on Day 2 or Day 3 exhibitors find themselves exhibiting to one another, and questions arise on whether this pure quantity of shows to attend is beneficial to business. I would argue the second or third day is just as important as the first for forming connections and relationships, building sustainable business, and contributing to employee satisfaction.

Many connections made at a conference occur in the hallway, elevator, while getting lunch, or at the bar! It cannot always be predicted when a new business connection will be made. I know Vanguard will deeply miss the opportunity to connect personally with business partners and friends in the industry that we are used to re-connecting with this time of year. I believe this is critical to the upkeep of our industry and plays a vital role in its strength of operations. Although there are some very promising benefits to a virtual show, I do not believe it can entirely replace this facet entirely.

Looking ahead

Asiafruit Logistica is another annual leading global show. Historically held in Hong Kong in September, it has now been moved to a virtual show in November.  Vanguard has had a significant place of pride with AsiaFruit since its inception. It has been an important gathering of our global partners and our global team. We celebrate our relationships with customers and important grower partners.  The typical meeting calendar for the Vanguard team is full on with friendships and business relationships that might be new or go back decades.  It seems inconceivable to me that Vanguard not be a part of the event.  We are still determining what that will look like, however.

As these virtual shows roll out, I will be inquiring about their effectiveness with my team and others. Like any shift in history, I believe this will make an impact that is longer lasting than 2020. A hybrid might emerge, wherein a show involves both in-person and virtual pieces, allowing us to extend invitations to more employees online, while sending other players in person. My guess is that organizations will adapt to the functionality of a virtual show floor and come to lean on these digital functions to reach new networks.

Whatever the case may be, I am excited to share Vanguard’s learnings with you as virtual shows roll out this fall. Stay tuned for updates from us – and we look forward to seeing you in the virtual world!