Turning an In-Person, One-Off Event to Online All the Time

The United Fresh Produce Association made its annual convention into a digital experience and ‘built a year-round convention center’ for commerce, engagement, and learning. Here’s what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

permanent online event

The United Fresh Produce Association turned its virtual convention platform into a permanent online offering.

When the United Fresh Produce Association canceled its annual convention and expo this past spring, its organizers, like so many others, quickly moved the program online. The scramble proved successful. So successful, in fact, that the association kept it going, turning a one-off event into a 24-hour online platform complete with a permanent expo, social gatherings, and on-demand education.

permanent online event

Amanda Griffin

“We basically built a year-round convention center,” said John Toner of the United Fresh LIVE! 365 platform. When Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration for the association, and his team held their virtual convention and expo in June they saw a major jump in participation — 7,500 attendees compared with 5,000 the year prior. It was clear that their industry was hungry for connection. “Folks were just so happy to engage and interact,” said Amanda Griffin, IOM, vice president of education and program management for United Fresh.

Expanding on the framework of their June event, the team designed an experience — illustrated in the Convene-created video below — that looks and feels very much like visiting an actual convention. This permanent virtual home allows everything to “live in one spot,” said Griffin, who oversees the majority of the association’s programming and education for its members. “It allows [members] to have a place to interact, and have a voice, and do the social things that we can’t do together as well as have some education tied in.”

A Connection Point

One of the most important features of LIVE! 365 is the virtual expo floor. The Intrado-powered platform allows users to browse the expo’s nearly 300 exhibitors as well as visit their booths, where users can chat one-on-one, watch informational videos, or download brochures and other materials. (Watch the video example below.)

“[The platform] serves as the connection point,” Toner said, adding that exhibitors whose engagement strategy went beyond the show floor reaped the best results. For example, many scheduled offline Zoom meetings or mailed out physical product samples and other materials to prospective buyers. Normally, United Fresh’s annual convention and expo would see about 300 exhibitors. “We were actually 30 percent ahead of last year,” Toner said. “And then COVID hit.” About 70 exhibitors canceled, but they picked up 50 new companies in the process. So even though they didn’t completely make up what they lost, the new platform helped push them close to that original number.

LIVE! 365 has also become a storehouse for continuing education. In May, in conjunction with Cornell University, United Fresh announced a new Executive Education certificate program, “Leading Through Crisis: The Path Forward for the Fresh Produce Industry.” The five-part workshop series launched alongside its June convention and still lives on LIVE! 365 along with the rest of the convention’s educational sessions. Besides housing a permanent archive of content for on-demand consumption, LIVE! 365 allows United Fresh to up the ante on opportunities to socialize. It’s now a one-stop calendar for industry coffee talks, meetups, and other gatherings. Using Zoom, the sessions usually have a specific topic, theme, or target audience — for example, they recently offered a meetup on career development for younger members.

Costs and Challenges

LIVE! 365 will remain open and free to users, however some content and experiences — like the Cornell certificate — come with an extra cost and will be password protected. Educational programming like this offers a way to continue to bring in revenue, as “the need for food safety education hasn’t changed with COVID,” Griffin said.

Using a sleek platform like Intrado comes with a higher price tag, but Griffin and Toner say it’s well worth the expense. The team will continue use LIVE! 365 to host its other annual events — the Washington Conference on Sept. 21-25, and United Fresh Start Foundation’s FreshStart Conference and United Fresh’s BrandStorm™ Conference in 2021. It will also play a large role in the 2021 Convention & Expo, which will reconvene in-person in Los Angeles next April.

However, the transition hasn’t been without challenges. Not everyone feels comfortable with the virtual shift. “We still have a generation of decision makers who are used to how they worked for 30 to 40 years,” Toner said. “The digital platform is a challenge — they’re used to working the aisles, the doors, the ballrooms.” And although attendance at their June event hit a high mark, they’ve seen an increase in attrition for virtual gatherings since then. To figure out why, they polled their members and discovered that their calendars are simply overwhelmed. “Hands down, what we’re hearing the most is that calendars are oversaturated with meetings,” Griffin said.

They continue to sell sponsorships — currently, the goal is to have 75 to 100 sponsors on the platform year-round. But “it’s lukewarm acceptance at this point,” said Toner. “People get what we’re trying to do, but they do miss the face-to-face interaction.” Even with those lukewarm numbers, with a line drawn through the costs of meeting in-person, Toner believes they still will end up more profitable than in years past. “You’re not paying $90,” he said, “for a pot of coffee now.”

Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.

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