(Oct. 21) ANAHEIM, Calif. — Sunny Southern California greeted the Produce Marketing Association’s 55th Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition with uncharacteristic and torrential downpours.

But the rain did little to dampen the spirit inside the Anaheim Convention Center, where record crowds, an enormous international contingent and a spate of well-attended educational workshops kept people’s attention.

From his exposition booth, Chula Vista-based San Diego Specialty Produce president John Llano stood among his new cranberry beans and graffiti eggplant and watched attendees peruse the latest produce industry products.

“We’ve been exhibitors for 10 years now,” Llano said Oct. 17. “For a first day, this was one of the best two or three. And I liked the international attendance because it gives us opportunities both ways, as buyers and suppliers.”

David Austin, the Albany, N.Y.-based director of marketing for Oxnard-based Mission Produce Inc., said booth traffic on the show floor exceeded hopes.

“We had the best opening day we’ve ever had,” Austin said.

And it’s no wonder there were so many opportunities. The Newark, Del.-based PMA’s 55th Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition Oct. 15-19 drew record crowds and record numbers of exhibitors. It even offered some political insight and humor from Newt Gingrich and James Carville in the closing breakfast Oct. 19.

Although final attendance figures were not available by Oct. 20, PMA president Bryan Silbermann said the total attendance would be at least 17,300, more than a thousand more than last year’s 16,200. And more than a quarter of them were from outside the U.S. and Canada, another likely record.

“I’m still floating,” Silbermann said Oct. 19. “People are enjoying themselves, they’re learning a lot, and they’re keeping the show floor busy.”

About 800 companies exhibited — a 4% increase over last year and another record — including more than 60 in the enormous Mexican booth alone. In fact, there were exhibitors from 27 countries, including Chile and Germany.

Across the board, attendees like the opportunities those international visitors offered.

“International is important,” said Phillip Moreland, vice president of sales and marketing for Santa Maria-based Babé Farms. “As a company, we have to look past just domestic. We have a domestic niche, but we need more international.”

Silbermann said he was surprised and delighted by the record turnout. While he expected to match last year’s attendance, he said he feared the devastation wreaked in Florida this fall by multiple hurricanes would reduce attendance from the Southeast.

Citrus buyers did start searching other growing regions to supplant the citrus lost to the Florida hurricanes. Texas grapefruit grower-shippers said they were seeing increased interest at the show, for example.

Silbermann said the turnout by Florida companies, some of whose executives and employees aren’t even back living at home yet, showed the resilience of the produce industry and the importance of the annual Fresh Summit.

PMA is giving back to those hit by the hurricanes. Proceeds from the PMA board’s annual member recruitment contest — at least $11,000 — are being sent to hurricane relief charities, Silbermann said.

MERGING INTERESTS

Perhaps the biggest news to greet attendees of the show was Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetables’ purchase of Watsonville-based Coastal Berry Co. That will make Dole one of the top strawberry shippers in California and complicate the young Sunkist Growers strawberry deal.

It was at last year’s PMA that Sunkist announced a deal wherein Coastal would grow and pack strawberries for Sunkist. The citrus cooperative asserts that it will continue to have a strawberry deal.

Watsonville was the place for mergers and acquisitions this month, as nearby Quail Mountain Herbs also became part of another company. It merged with Compton-based HerbThyme Farms Inc., which said it will maintain the Quail Mountain brand.

One of the biggest successes of the convention was the educational workshop series.

Divided into topical tracks for the first time, they allowed attendees to choose whether to devote their time to related topics or pick a broad range of learning opportunities. From the Oct. 16 standing-room-only opening workshop about global supply and demand, the sessions seemed better attended than last year’s.

One track in particular represented a major emerging issue in produce, the concept of how to adapt to new information sharing technology in order to take advantage of radio frequency identification tags and electronic commerce systems.

It’s confusing, and it will take time and money, Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for PMA, told a session audience. But the fact that RFID and electronic traceability requirements are coming is unassailable, he said, and the sooner the produce industry responds, the easier and cheaper it will be.

Along with the increased international presence, floral helped make this year’s convention so much bigger than before.

During his time on the board before becoming chairman at this convention, Steve Junqueiro of Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets has pushed PMA to better respond to floral needs. And the effort is paying off, Silbermann said. In 2002, PMA had 15 floral exhibitors. This year, it had 65.

Perhaps another reason for the record turnout is PMA’s conscious decision to offer services to members on a year-round basis and not be satisfied to be just one week in October, Silbermann said.

In the past year, PMA has focused not only on recruiting and retaining members, but doing so by offering them Produce Academies, RFID Internet discussions and other business-related tools throughout the year, he said.

Judging by the numbers, it’s paying off.

PMA enrolled 303 new members in the past year, 13 more than its goal, Silbermann said. And member retention this year is 88%, a percent higher than PMA’s goal and 5% higher than where the organization was five years ago, he said. Meanwhile, new member retention — usually a little more than 70% — was 85% this year, Silbermann said.

“Even more than the record numbers, the highlights of the show were the energy and the sense of optimism in the industry,” Silbermann said. “I’ve heard rave reviews of the educational sessions. We’re focusing more on what the members tell us they want, and they’re staying with us. All of that demonstrates that PMA is more than just one week in October.”