ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Produce Marketing Association's convention, being held here this week, is likely to be the biggest and most well-attended meeting ever hosted by the association, and it signifies an industry that is generally in excellent shape, said Bryan Silbermann, president of PMA, Newark, Del.
In both attendance and exhibitor levels, the show has exceeded the PMA's expectations for growth, Silbermann told SN as the event approached.
In addition, he said, the aspects of change within both classes of show participants are strong indicators of important trends affecting the industry, such as internationalization and a consolidation among traditional industry players that is running concurrently with an expansion of the industry into new niches.
"Trade shows are often a good barometer of where the industry is heading and of the overall health of the business, based on who is going and who is not, and on the levels of attendance," said Silbermann.
"Basically, based on what we've been seeing this year, the industry is in very good shape. Are there certain companies or segments that are having a tough time? Of course. but overall, the industry is in very good shape."
As of the cut-off date, preregistration figures had reached just over 9,500. Silbermann said that compared favorably to the number of preregistrants for the Atlanta convention last year, which topped 8,000. He added that total registrations, including walk-ins, hit 12,000-plus for the 1996 event, and that he expected at least another 3,000 on-site registrations.
The list of exhibitors for 1997 closed at 619 companies, taking up 1,600 booths. Last year, the show hosted 535 exhibitors in 1,391 booths. By both measures, the show this week represents about a 15% rate of growth compared with last year, Silbermann said.
For months, registration levels had been running significantly ahead of both last year's experience and the association's own projections for this year, he said.
"It looks to me like we are going to have substantially higher international attendance, which is way over last year at this time," he added.
When asked if the association has been noting any changes this year in the prominence of types of registrants compared with last year, Silbermann replied, "I can't say that there is a pattern of change I have seen. Maybe a changing of the titles of many registrants, such as more people being called category managers, as opposed to buyers or merchandisers. It is not a flood we are seeing, but it is happening."
What has been changing is the mix of attendees from different disciplines at the PMA events. Silbermann said that, for example, more produce executives have been attending the association's food-service conference, while more deli executives have been showing up at produce events.
"We saw significant crossover at our food-service conference as well this year -- which also had record attendance -- way in excess of last year."
Silbermann recalled that the PMA's food-service conference, held earlier in the year in California, featured a panel that juxtaposed a top perishables executive from Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, with the marketing head of HMR operator Boston Market, Golden, Colo., in a discussion that generated a significant buzz at the meeting.
It was called "The Food Fight of the Century," referring to the competition between supermarkets and the food-service side of the business. "People are starting to sit up and take notice," Silbermann said.
"On the supply side, we had people with a typical retail focus coming to see if they could attract food-service people. The tabletop exhibit floor was busting at the seams. We will have to reconsider how to accommodate that part of the conference next year at Monterey, [Calif.]," he said of the annual food-service conference.
Addressing the steady growth in exhibitors at the PMA convention -- the show floor sold out ahead of schedule, Silbermann said, "Without trying to blow our own horn too loudly, I think PMA is clearly the place to be for the industry, for the buyer community.
"The clearer definition of the roles between ourselves and United has made the decision easier for those who used to exhibit at both," he explained. Silbermann was referring to the fact that a year of intense discussions between the PMA and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., over whether there was too much duplication among the trade groups' services and events, resulted in a more pronounced distinction between the two: the PMA and its convention as the forum for marketing, United as the more traditional representative of the produce supply and distribution industries with a convention more narrowly aimed to those segments of the business.
"The other part of it is that exhibitors are doing more to stand out from the crowd," Silbermann said. "The industry is becoming more brand-conscious, much more marketing-conscious. Part of that is being seen on the fresh-cut and HMR side, but more names are popping up and more money is being spent on the marketing of products, and it is becoming less and less a commodity business."
He said that in another change characterizing the show floor this year, many exhibitors have opted for larger booths, and booth structures that include private or semi-private meeting rooms. He sees that as evidence, again, of large players growing larger.
"Also, there are a lot of niche players coming out. Consolidation is definitely happening in the industry, but at the same time, you have all these specialty supplier people coming out. With the whole explosion in the mushroom business, for example, or in the tomato category, which is going gangbusters, or in greenhouse production -- all these newer or newly vibrant segments want to attract buyer attention," the trade group executive said.
The face of the PMA show this year also reflects the increasingly international scope of the fresh produce industry as its goes to market in the United States or outside North America, said Silbermann.
"It is affecting registration, this international segment. It is not just Mexico; we are seeing large increases in attendance from Argentina, Brazil, Central America, the Far East, the Pacific Rim and South Africa. So, who the people are also tells you about the direction the industry is headed in."