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United Fresh 2014 to kick off trade show June 10-13

This year's United Fresh 2014 is shaping up to be the largest ever, hosting high-level speakers in sports, business and politics and providing the produce industry with cutting-edge insights from top branding experts.

The produce group takes advantage of its Chicago locale this year with Food Marketing Institute's trade show, FMI Connect, which attracts 15,000 retailers and wholesalers. In October, the two associations announced a three-year agreement to co-locate the trade shows in Chicago, a signal of the importance of fresh foods and produce as an important component of retail success. This year, United Fresh has booked a record number of more than 320 exhibitors.

One of the top reasons to attend this year's United Fresh 2014 conference next month is to hear from the "godfather of branding," Al Ries, and others during a daylong session on the role of branding in fresh produce, said United Fresh 2014 organizer John Toner, vice president of convention and industry relations.

Produce companies are looking to differentiate their products and the Retail Produce Marketing and Merchandising Conference that follows the United Fresh trade show delves into building brand awareness, product design and packaging, point-of-sale and in-store merchandising, and engaging consumers to become repeat purchasers.

In each session, a marketing expert will kick off the discussion with a state-of-the-art review of the topic, which will then be followed by a panel of produce industry marketing pros discussing how the topic plays out in the fresh produce sector.

"We believe hearing from these broad marketing experts will stimulate creative thinking for our members, who can then look back inward to the produce environment to see how different strategies might apply in our sector," said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing at California Giant Berry Farms and vice chairman of United's Produce Marketing & Merchandising Council. "We know fresh produce is unique, but we also want to think creatively beyond our own marketing traditions."

Another top reason to attend is the speakers this year. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the keynote speaker at the Joint United/FMI General Session Tuesday afternoon. Ray Gilmer, United Fresh vice president of Issues Management & Communication, said he anticipates lots of media attention as the speech comes the same day the possible presidential candidate releases her new memoir.

Other speakers include Ed Crenshaw, chief executive officer of Publix Supermarkets, who will share his views on current and future trends in the supermarket retail industry, and CBS Sports announcer Greg Gumbel, who draws upon 40 years experience in the sports world. After Gumbel, incoming United Fresh Chairman Ron Carkoski of Four Seasons Family of Companies will deliver his State of the Industry address.

Gilmer said the association has bumped up the number of retail produce managers to 35 from 25 who will be honored under the 2014 Retail Produce Manager Awards Program, which marks the 10th year anniversary of the Ready Pac Foods-sponsored program. The 35 produce managers represent 32 different supermarket banners, commissaries and independent retail stores in 20 states.

"Ready Pac is very proud to have sponsored the United Fresh Retail Manager Awards Program for the past 10 years to honor these ambassadors for our industry," said Tony Sarsam, CEO of Ready Pac Foods. The winners are recognized during the Produce Celebration Gala on June 11.

The 2014 New Product Awards has also increased to a record 40 finalists this year, a 25 percent increase over last year, and they will compete in five categories for the title of Best New Products at the Chicago meeting.

It's a signal, Toner said, that companies are starting to reinvest in their business.

Another highlight will be the opening party at Millennium Park, which features art and views of the Chicago cityscape, and a selection of famous Chicago foods, and FMI Connect's exhibit floor.

Toner calls the FMI convention floor a "highly dynamic area" that will showcase the future retail experience, and feature a health and wellness section that will attract dieticians who will visit produce exhibitors.

Gilmer says United Fresh is also taking the opportunity during the show to bring in more than a dozen school dieticians who can help produce companies eager to jump into the school purchasing market. The group has found that coupling school purchase decision makers with produce companies helps educate them on the process.

Finally, United Fresh 2014 will run its Market Segment Super Sessions, educational sessions driven by the group's grower-shipper, fresh-cut processor, wholesale-distributor, and retail-foodservice boards. The topics range from expanding fresh-cut marketing opportunities with schools to new ways for produce wholesalers to sell to convenience stores and other alternative grocery channels.

At one of these sessions, FreshDirect Co-Founder David McInerney, Wegmans Food Safety Manager Bill Pool and Pro*Act Supply Chain Manager Kathleen Phillips will address the local movement at retail and foodservice.

The session will "provide insight and lively discussion about the complexities of buying, selling and marketing local produce and the implications for your business from industry leaders representing unique business models within retail and foodservice operations," says Jeff Oberman, vice president of trade relations for United Fresh.