When the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers Association holds its annual meeting, it’s as much about business as it is about a good party.


The association’s 84th annual meeting is returning to Las Vegas Nov. 8-11 at the Wynn Resort. Attendees can expect everything from golf to the Rat Pack.


Association president Tom Nassif said the annual gathering is really about celebrating the membership and their contributions to the group, not just a fundraiser for Western Growers.


“We always wanted to be entertaining and enjoyable as well as combine that with some really pertinent workshops,” Nassif said.


That’s not to say there won’t be work to do. Nassif said one feature of the meeting is having a concentrated selection of panels that focus on a few core topics facing the industry. A new panel this year will look at how growers can benefit from the technology developed by the federal government, Nassif said.


That panel will include Jeff Legault, associate director of business development at the National Robotics Engineering Center, Carnegie Mellon University, and Nassif said he hopes the discussion will show members how they can become more efficient through mechanized farming practices like harvesting.


Another panel, Nassif said, is an outgrowth of the association’s drive to better connect produce buyers and retailers with growers and shippers they normally don’t have much contact with. Representatives from major buyers Whole Foods Market, Sysco Corp., and the Kroger Co. will be on hand for an off-the-record conversation with association members covering everything from food safety and audits to traceability and sustainability in the supply chain, Nassif said.


The third and final panel of the meeting will focus on the politics of water in California with Laura Harnish, California regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund; Steve Patricio, president and chief operating officer of Westside Produce; and John Herrick, counsel and manager for the South Delta Water Agency.


Randy Hause, the association’s vice president of member relations, said despite the recession bookings are on par with those during the association’s last meeting in Las Vegas in 2006. The exhibitor area has been doubled this year to accommodate the increase in companies attending, and Hause said overall attendance should be about 550. About 480 attended in 2006.


“We looked at what other organizations charge for people to participate and attend their conventions and we’re fairly priced,” Hause said.


Former association chairman Steve Martori will be honored during the meeting at a dinner hosted by sports commentator and comedian David Feherty. Hause said a new feature of the meeting is free tours of a 6,000-square-foot EcoFusion home.