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Change is coming to United Fresh convention

The United Fresh Produce Association announced that it is implementing changes to its annual convention designed to provide an exciting and valuable experience to attendees.

The association held a webinar Feb. 11 for members of the trade media to detail the changes to this year’s event, which will be held June 10-12 in Chicago.united

John Toner, United’s vice president of convention and industry collaboration, said the association’s board of directors and convention committee began looking at ways to expand and improve the convention around six months ago, beginning with a long-term strategic task force evaluation. In September, the board voted to invest in new convention value for attendees and exhibitors. The following month, a redesigned expo floor in the North Hall of McCormick Place was secured. And in January, the board and convention committee approved final plans for the enhancements in expo, programming and networking at the event.

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

Toner said the enhancements focus on four major areas that drive the event:

  • Energetic, exciting and busy expo floor.
  • Programming that attracts VIPs and adds real value to all.
  • New opportunities for business-to-business connections.
  • Increased networking events that bring the produce community together.

Regarding the expo floor, Toner said the former “learning centers” will now be replaced with the “Main Stage,” which will be used for special events like culinary demos, panel discussions and Ted Talks, and the “Stage Next,” which will be used for future-oriented topics.

United Fresh is also adding a food court back to the expo floor, something that has been absent from the convention for around 18 years. The food court will feature six different entrée stations and six different sponsors, and is designed to celebrate the industry, according to Toner.

There also will be a new emphasis on the United FreshStart Foundation on the expo floor, with the inclusion of a salad bar and some kids’ activities to demonstrate the mission of the foundation.

Other enhancements include a step-counting competition for attendees on the expo floor, and elevating the Innovation Awards in stature by moving it to the Main Stage to add more energy to the program.

Toner also was effusive about two special events in the lineup. The first is the Fresh Festival for School Foodservice. While not a brand new event, it will be relocated to the main registration area of the convention hall so all attendees can see the kid-friendly products on display. A cocktail reception will be held there from 4-5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 11, to further showcase the program.

The second special event will be a Retail-Foodservice Celebration at the end of the expo on Wednesday, June 12, where the Retail Managers and Chef’s Award contest winners will be celebrated. Toner said it will be a great networking event, which will also preview United Fresh’s next destination for 2020 -- San Diego.

On the programming side, a kick-off Produce Outlook general session will be held on Monday, June 10, featuring industry leaders forecasting the future of produce. Targeted education sessions will follow in the afternoon. There also will be a keynote breakfast general session on Tuesday, June 11.

A major shift will happen with the Women in Produce session, which will be held during the breakfast session on Wednesday. Aside from providing a larger forum for this event, it will also free up Tuesday afternoon to hold more community-building events.

With an eye toward business connection enhancements, United Fresh is adding a one-on-one matchmaking event that pairs 20 buying companies with 20 suppliers in a three-hour round of 15-minute meetings. So far, confirmed buyers include Albertsons, Baldor, Costco, McDonalds, Raley’s, Tops, US Foods and Walmart, with more to come.

Another key addition will be a VIP boat tour from McCormick Place to the Navy Pier for the opening reception, which Toner said is great way for sponsors to interact with high-level buyers and executives.

Aside from the opening party at the refurbished Navy Pier, there will be a late-night party on June 11 at the House of Blues, which is another way to bring the produce community together, especially appealing to the younger segment of the industry. Toner said there are a couple of special surprises planned, alluding to musical acts that will perform at the legendary venue.

Toner said the convention website and registration portal (www.unitedfreshshow.org) will open Feb. 13 and the association has unveiled a new convention logo designed to reinforce the United Fresh brand and drive clear communication about the value proposition to the industry.

“We are focused on ‘want,’” said Toner. “We want people to feel like they need to be at the convention and we want them to come back next year. We’re focused on aspects of the show that create fun, enjoyable and shared experiences. Everyone is talking about Instagram, so we want to have Instagrammable moments at the show. We’re looking to break from the traditional mold of the convention.

“We want the industry to reconsider pre-existing perceptions of the convention,” he continued. “From the school foodservice event to the retail produce manager event to the foodservice awards and the innovation awards — everything we do has a level of excitement that we want to convey to the industry.”