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Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes Issue Rolls On With Discourse About Beauty, PMA Exhibit Policy, Marketing Tactics And Proper Attire

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 2, 2012

We’ve run four pieces in this conversation so far:

1) Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes And The Disconnect With PMA’s Position On Women’s Careers

2) Pundit’s Mailbag — Nothing Wrong With Booth Babes!

3) Pundit’s Mailbag — “Booth Babes”, Professionalism and Hypocrisy: What Should PMA’s Policy Be?

4) Pundit’s Mailbag – United Fresh And Others Weigh In On Booth Babes

And the perspectives proliferate:

Wow, the subject that just won’t die.

I find the booth babes often fill some form of necessary work — be it handing out samples or pamphlets or keeping a potential customer occupied — while the primary sales people finish their conversation with the person who was in the booth first. To eliminate the local talent would either require the company to have additional workers fly across the country at great expense or do without and not be able to staff their booth to the level they need.

As for the looks of the local talent, I suppose one could request unattractive people, but I am sure we all know that the staffing companies don’t have binders full of those. I have sat in the reception lobbies of many companies, and I never see a receptionist who is unattractive.

Granted, they may not be aspiring runway models, and I am sure that their ability to perform the job is essential, but is it somehow ok to hire people who look attractive and can do the job for the front office, but not those who can do the job and are exceptionally attractive for the trade show?

Is it odd, though, that so many people would say this is degrading without asking the allegedly degraded for their opinion? Here are all forms of management discussing this issue involving labor without asking for any input from said labor. Not one “booth babe” has sent any feedback or apparently was even asked for their input.

Maybe they don’t find it degrading or maybe they would rather be degraded than be unemployed. The same thing could easily be said of anybody who works at “Hot-Dog on a Stick” at the local mall or twirls a “Tax Refund” sign dressed as Uncle Sam on the side of the road every April.

—Mike Poindexter
General Manager
Poindexter Nut Company
Selma, California

In fairness, we don’t think the issue is whether to hire local people or not, and the question of hiring attractive people, though an issue in itself, is not the one we have been addressing.

Here the issue is what kind of dress is appropriate.

The photo Dan’l Mackey Almy used on her blog, The Core of women dressed in Daisy Duke type outfits was objectionable to many of our correspondents not because the women were attractive but because they were not dressed professionally. In other words, the same exact women in business suits or even Khakis and logoed golf shirts in the now common fashion would not have raised an objection.

The issue of whether people subjectively feel degraded is more complicated than it seems. We could go into Marxian theories of False Consciousness, which basically holds that people don’t realize how oppressed they actually are. We can also discuss social justice issues and note that some would question whether the fact that the world is so organized that some people have few options, makes it OK when they want to do desperate things.

The issues are complicated and, in fact, the women who started this conversation think it has gotten off track:

I guess Dan’l and I struck a chord with all the booth babe feedback you’ve been getting. I suppose it’s been vetted enough, and I certainly have more important things to be doing… but I think my main point has gotten lost in the debate. I’ve met a few watermelon queens and had the opportunity to march on Capitol Hill with them. There were no bare midriffs to be seen. They were dressed quite elegantly.

Most importantly, they were well versed on public policy and were exceptional, well-trained spokespeople. There’s a big difference between a watermelon queen and a booth babe.  

I also have an appreciation for historic produce labels that reference women. To say we were advocating these companies get rid of their labels and marketing materials is a classic case of jumping from one extreme to the other.  

I’ve been to Fruit Logistica, and most of the “hostesses” are dressed in clothes native to their country. Fruit Logistica is different from Fresh Summit. There is more of a social atmosphere. Most of the exhibits are actually bars with alcoholic beverages flowing all day long. I didn’t mind the hostesses at all at Fruit Logistica — it fit the occasion and atmosphere of the show.

My point is, Fruit Logistica doesn’t have young college female students walking their show with people trying to “mentor” them into the produce industry. PMA does. Fruit Logistica also doesn’t have a Women’s Leadership breakfast and upcoming educational conference promoting women leadership in business. PMA does.

As CEO of a certified Women’s Business Enterprise and a member of the Network of Executive Women, I applaud PMA for focusing on these important initiatives. All I’m suggesting is PMA’s exhibit policies support their educational programs — not contradict them.

—Lorri Koster
Chairman/CEO
Mann Packing Company
Salinas, California

Lorri copied Dan’l on her letter, and Dan’l quickly concurred:

I agree wholeheartedly that PMA must choose how they want their event to evolve.  All things to all people will not work with the majority of paying members in the long run. It’s easy to justify any behavior or marketing tactics for any occasion; the more difficult task is for PMA and other event organizers to focus on how they want their events to be defined and how they hope to progress. Booth sales (at any cost) must not be the single measurement of an event’s success, and when I see the imbalance as described by Lorri in her letter, I can’t help but to question that fact.

Relative to individual companies, my issue is with the tactics not with freedoms. Majestic was not the only company or person that utilized the “booth babe” tactic. Mr. Thomas has been forceful in his justification for his actions, but with Two Big Misses in his replies to the Pundit:

1.   Complete disregard to the fact that his booth personnel were signing their centerfold headshots, and

2. The same booth personnel were positioned in front of a booth that did not represent Majestic, but rather Texas Produce Association. 

In my opinion, neither of these tactics are representative of a strategy that was well planned or executed with a productive outcome in mind, thus weakening impact of Fresh Summit for attendees.

I have appreciated all the opinions on this topic.  I look forward to seeing you all in New York!  Getting excited.

--Dan’l Mackey Almy
President and Managing Partner

DMA Solutions, Inc.
Irving Texas

In the end, what this conversation is really about is brand-building, and Lorri and Dan’l are really providing some free consulting, directly to PMA and more broadly to the whole industry about consistency of presentation.

Of course, even acknowledging the importance of such matters, turning it into policy is more difficult.

Would the “Daisy Duke” characters be OK if they weren’t signing their centerfolds? Is the midriff the problem or the short shorts? What if they were wearing sequined gowns and pointing to the produce as if it were a Ferrari at the auto show.

Instituting policies, as many trade shows have, requiring professional attire is less helpful than it might seem. Policies are useful to give show management the opportunity to force someone to stop if there are too many complaints.

It seems beyond argument that PMA, and any other organization, has to decide what it represents and what it wishes to be known for. It also seems obvious that consistency in imaging is a wise idea and an effective branding strategy.

The problem on a trade show is that business is traditionally mixed with fun, and for many men, seeing a “Dukes of Hazard” showcase is fun.

It is, perhaps, an unprofessional distraction, but so are many things at trade shows.

But, in the end, today, most organizations wouldn’t allow the kind of fun things that offend people to go on. You wouldn’t let an exhibitor have an Al Jolson Blackface character at its booth, although that might have been perfectly acceptable at some point in time.

Perhaps what this is all about is just the changing mores of a society in flux. Things that used to be acceptable just are not acceptable any more. Equally, things in other areas that used to be unacceptable are acceptable now.

The most interesting part of these exchanges is why do so many care so much and, surely, it is a clash between two different visions.

But only one will own the future.

Many thanks to Mike Poindexter, Lorri Koster and Dan’l Mackay Almy for helping us think through this important issue.

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