GRAPEVINE, TX — What’s it like to go to a trade show in the age of COVID?
I knew I’d be on the list to go to the Texas International Produce Association’s Viva Fresh Expo as soon as it was announced that they planned to host the first in-person event in the fresh produce industry in more than a year.
I’ve been involved with Viva Fresh since the beginning and am a big supporter of the event.
It’s not easy to be the first show out of the gate. Someone had to do it, and I’m glad it was in my back yard. Grapevine is about three hours from my home in the Austin suburbs.
I had a lot of questions from people who weren’t able to attend, curious about how this would all go down while we’re still battling to get COVID cases down, get people vaccinated, and get back to business.
The biggest question was “Were the buyers there?”
The answer: Everyone who I thought would be there was there. I’d liken it to starting over with a brand new show – something I’ve been through several times in my career. Getting buyers to come to a trade show is a huge challenge without a pandemic. Add corporate policies forbidding travel and the attendance wasn’t what it was in 2019, obviously, but there was a respectable number.
I’ll be honest. I was nervous about attending myself. Organizers did their best to create a safe environment. Masks were required. Temperatures were taken. Distance was provided. Badges were color-coded for contact comfort level.
But people are people. Masks came off. Hugs were given (with permission).
It’s hard to jump back into things with the underlying current of both relief to feel “normal,” and anxiety about such a big gathering – 1,300 attendees is a lot. That opening reception was CROWDED. It was almost like people forgot there’s a pandemic. I stayed out on the patio with a few other folks who preferred an outdoor venue, but there were plenty who were OK with being inside.
It all comes down to your comfort level.
Over the past year, I’d say my household has skirted the line between lockdown and living. We dine out — on patios. We eschew gatherings, except soccer — a relatively “safe” outdoor option, with parents and coaches masked.
My kids have seen their grandparents maybe half a dozen times in the past year, even though they live 20 minutes away. Second doses of vaccines are on the horizon for them, so maybe that will change soon.
We don’t go to public places, like stores, unless masks are required, and my kids will stare you down if you’re not wearing one. Pretty much everyone in our community wears them. It’s rare to see someone without one at H-E-B, for instance.
So, to jump in the deep end of a public gathering like Viva Fresh was a big stretch. I suspect the more open attitude of Florida will mean an even less locked-down Southern Exposure next week. Organizers can only do so much about enforcing safety protocols, and that’s OK.
If you’re not comfortable with gatherings, it will be hard to attend — that’s the brutal, honest truth. If I hadn’t been fully vaccinated, I wouldn’t consider it.
As we roll in to more — and bigger — events, it will get easier for everyone.