Cancel OK

Virtual events leave us starving for connection

I started 2020 on a roll, with back-to-back visits to Blue Book members, field tours, and one of the largest trade shows in our business: Fruit Logistica in Berlin.

I visited farms on the Mexico border, Canadian greenhouses, retailers in Paris, Berlin, and London, and connected with industry colleagues at the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure in Tampa.

It was shaping up to be a fantastic year…until the world shut down and business as we know it ground to a halt. Events were cancelled, moved, postponed, and pivoted to virtual.

I applaud the produce industry for working hard to continue to facilitate the connections that make this marketplace exceptional.

Now that we’ve completed virtual versions of the biggest shows in the business—United Fresh and Fresh Summit, I think it’s time to evaluate how effective they’ve been.

When asked, people usually give great feedback for the shows—publicly, at least. A great deal of work goes into them, and there’s a lot of industry investment, so I know there’s pressure to make lemonade out of the lemons life is throwing at us.

I see big engagement numbers, but little follow-through from virtual interactions.

I’m not here to criticize the content; every virtual event I’ve participated in has had a carefully curated selection of speakers, well thought-out formats and schedules, and enthusiastic buy-in from participants.

And yet, I’ve walked away (or closed my laptop) without that energized feeling of connection and purpose. Fresh Summit is a great example. Every year, I walk out of the “State of the Industry” breakfast ready to conquer the world. Watching a prerecorded video of it just didn’t feel the same.

As a work-from-home veteran (I’ve been doing it since 2007), I was an early adopter of video conferencing. It’s a great tool, and smart businesses are using it to ease the burden of lost face-to-face connections.

However, any parent currently navigating pandemic virtual schooling can tell you it’s nowhere near as effective as in-person.

We’ve all got Zoom fatigue. I’m no longer excited at the prospect of getting to have virtual happy hour with my industry friends.

“I’m dying a slow breakout session death,” is how one industry colleague put it.

Think about it this way: when you’re worn out from an in-person event, don’t you still have that upside feeling like it was worth it because you ran in to a valuable business connection either at your booth, a reception, luncheon, or even in the hotel lobby?

produce with pamelaWith a virtual event, the numerous casual and unplanned interactions are lost—and we have to find a way to get them back.

It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen with the Covid-19 pandemic going into the winter, but United Fresh’s FreshStart and BrandStorm events are virtual, as is the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s annual convention.

Viva Fresh is planning a hybrid limited attendance in-person event in Dallas, but in late October, the SEPC started laying the groundwork for virtual networking with a new platform called the Virtual Garden.

So far the Virtual Garden has been like other organizations’ living event platforms, with semi-regular presentations. The next, Pandemic Produce Trends: Ideas Ripe for the Picking hosted by Anne-Marie Roerink, is scheduled for Dec. 8 at noon eastern.

I’m going to keep my hopes up that this new platform is just a precaution in case we’re stuck at home longer than expected. I already bought a fantastic new apple frock for the next in-person event.

A version of this column appeared in the November/December issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Read the full digital edition here. 

Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.