Around the globe companies are trying to come up with ways to cope with the COVID-pandemic. The fruit and vegetable sector was not as affected by the measures and shutdowns as others but keeping distance and finding enough employees has been a challenge. Another big change has been the cancellation of events – many are missing the platform for networking and connecting with customers.
The United Fresh Convention & Expo which was set to be held in San Diego June 16-18, 2020, is one of the events that hasn’t been cancelled but is going a virtual route. ProEx Food, LLC is participating in the event and looking forward to a one-of-a-kind experience that may also be the future of fresh produce exhibitions.
“It has been an interesting few months,” says Nick Maglio, Director of Marketing for ProEx Food. “It was felt more quickly in our European ops than in the US. In the beginning, we saw a significant increase in interest for our robotic automation solutions, and both inquiries and customers with whom we had an active project immediately asked if there was an impact in our lead times.”
While labor shortage luckily isn’t an issue for ProEx Food, it has impacted their customers. “Of course, helping processors solve for labor issues has always been a main tenant of our product and service offerings. We anticipate an increase in business to help our customers upgrade for efficiency, as well as to help plan for the unknown, for however long COVID lasts into the future.”
The team of ProexFood before the outbreak of the pandemic at the Fruit Logistica 2020. Could exhibitions like this be a thing of the past?
The virus will not just affect operations in the fresh produce sector directly but also how events will be handled. “Not many have been definitively canceled so far. I think a lot of the events right now are waiting to see how United Fresh goes before making their own determinations.” Preparing for a virtual exhibition comes with a completely new set of challenges: “We really need to decide where to focus our energy. There is a lot of uncertainty on not only if events will actually happen, but what will the attendance be. We’re seeing a need to move a bit more digital/virtual, and help on the user experience within our own world.”
“I like the fact that United Fresh is trying to preserve their important platform as much as possible. Since it’s so new, we can’t really forecast what the impact will be, nor if it will prove out to be as valuable as face-to-face often is, in not only our business but others. In the past, I’ve participated in a couple virtual events for other industries, which have been a mixed bag.” Nick explains that on one hand, it’s nice to go back to review recordings of keynotes and other presentations OnDemand.
On the other hand, the participants aren’t physically removed from normal operations, and can be easily distracted. At a physical exhibition there is a clearer focus on building relations. “Regardless, there is a lot of pent up desire to engage with new people and companies in a safe manner. This is a clear outlet to enable people to do so with relatively limited cost all around. I’m excited to see how this all goes.”
But what does it look like to have a virtual presence at an exhibition? Nick explains: “Many other virtual events so far have been only educational and don’t try to replicate the booth/contact/sales experience. Here, there’s a bit more of a ‘virtual lobby’. We’re working to have the right level of content and links to more on the site, while also standing out, which can be hard in this kind of setup. That’s really the change – there is no grand, built-out stand that can draw attention and be augmented by outgoing personalities. We want to make sure our innovative solutions really stand out.”
It is a shift of resources and attention, and a truly digital approach. “Rather than focusing on lining up on-site meetings and entertainment, and working on equipment and staff logistics, we are working on our presence. We can’t rely on our staff to reach out and engage, it becomes more reactive.” Since this is one of the first exhibitions of this kind, nobody is sure what to expect: “If nothing else, we hope this will illustrate how digital our customers have become. It will also help us determine how we approach our awareness strategy in the near future.” After all, digital events could be here to stay.
They want to participate in these and similar events to continue to spread awareness about their company, products and emphasize their services. Missing United Fresh was not an option: “Our CEO and co-founder, Ross Lund, has been in the industry for quite a while, and we want people to know that he’s taken all of his experience and poured it into our company. He used it to create an innovative and collaborative culture. We’ve also pivoted a bit into more emerging technologies, especially robotic automation and next level connected / IoT control systems. Our high-level engineering center of excellence, led by co-founder and CTO Daniel Ghadiri, knows how to optimize the integration of these technologies with our processing and packaging equipment and solutions. This results in extremely efficient line design and implementation. We also go out and source any needed equipment and technology for customers if we don’t already have the right piece to suit each customer’s need.”
He concludes: “Let’s face it: trade shows are expensive, not only for the exhibitors but also for attendees. Those costs are not only monetary, but also in terms of time, resource allocation and opportunity cost. At some level, those costs are factored into pricing for all parties as a part of their operational costs. Finding new, innovative, efficient solutions in business all around enables sellers reallocate those expenses into any combination of R&D, pricing changes, etc. This specifically forces an inflection point where it’s no longer ‘What would happen if we skipped this show or the next?’ Instead, it’s ‘This is happening, how do we respond?’ I see this fostering innovation, and those that take advantage are going to be able to serve their customers even better than before. For processors who want that speed and agility, and a willingness to truly collaborate – we are ready. We are looking to create customers for life and put a lot of effort into building trust and forging that bond.”