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The Southeast Produce Council has planned a full program of business and social events for its sixth annual conference and trade show, scheduled for March 5-7 in Tampa, FL.

The council expects attendance to approach 1,000 for this year's event, which would match last year's event in Orlando, FL, according to SPC Executive Director Terry Vorhees. "We'll have somewhere between 900 and 1,000. That's where the numbers fell last year," Mr. Vorhees told The Produce News March 3.

The 2009 Retail & Foodservice Conference & Exposition will kick off, as usual, with a golf tournament at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Lake Jovita Golf Club. The awards dinner for the golfers will take place from about 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The conference, known as Southern Exposure 2009, gets into high gear Friday with an exciting lineup of field tours, beginning at 8 a.m.

The first stop will be Driscoll's strawberry operation in Dover. The company will host a tour of one of its strawberry fields during the peak harvest. Visitors will have the opportunity to tour the fields and production to see all the steps in the harvest, through the shipping cycle.

The second stop will by the Gulf Coast Research & Education Center. Research at the center focuses on commodities grown in central Florida, including strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, caladiums and various native plants such as wild coffee and coreposis (tickseed). The center houses 16 laboratories, including tissue culture and plant diagnostics; 475 acres of land, donated by Hillsborough County, contain the center's research trials. Visitors will learn about the center's various programs, including breeding, plant pathology, entomology and cultural management, and will be able to meet with faculty members from various disciplines as well as tour the facility, labs and greenhouses.

Lunch will be served at the research center.

The third and final stop will be Sweetbay Supermarket in Riverview, FL, where attendees will have the opportunity to tour the store and find out why the brand and store concept expresses the vibrant, exciting and diverse tastes, colors and aromas of great food that are so important to Floridians. Sweetbay opened its first store in Largo, FL, in November 2004; today there are 107 stores as far south as Naples and as far north as Gainesville. Sweetbay Supermarket is a Florida-based supermarket company, wholly owned by the Delhaize Group.

The Produce for Kids Reception (by invitation) will take place from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., followed by the Sponsors VIP Reception (by invitation) from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., both at the Marriott. The gala opening party, with an "Old Key West" theme, will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., also at the Marriott.

Saturday's program begins with two workshops. (All events Saturday will take place at the Tampa Convention Center.)

Ronnie L. De La Cruz of De La Cruz Consulting & Training will moderate the first workshop, called "Defining Locally Grown," from 8 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Panelists will be Jeff Parker, business manager of produce procurement at Ukrops Supermarkets; Adam Lytch, Southeast grower development director at L&M Cos.; and Tony Merola, who has spent the last 30 years as a chef as well as serving in various marketing, merchandising, sales and publicity capacities for fresh produce organizations from coast to coast.

Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, will moderate the second workshop, called "Consumers dig deep - how the economy impacts purchases," from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Panelists will be Todd Hale, senior vice president of consumer and shopper insights at Nielsen Consumer Panel Services; Eugene W Loudon, director of marketing at Dovex; Peter Kohutanycz, senior director of consumer and business insight at Stop & Shop and Giant Supermarkets; and Bob Severino, also of Stop & Shop and Giant Supermarkets.

The keynote luncheon will take place from 11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. During the luncheon, the council's second Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Ferdinand S. Duda, who has been a member of the board of directors of Oviedo, FL-based A. Duda & Sons Inc. since 1981 and chairman since January 2005, by The Produce News, a co-sponsor of the award.

Harold Lloyd, who has appeared at many produce conferences around the country in recent years, will then deliver the keynote address, "Riding the Wave of Change."

After the luncheon, the expo, which is always one of the highlights of the SPC conference, will take place from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The number of exhibitors has risen this year from last year, as the council continually tries to balance the desires of exhibitors with those of the attendees.

The council looks at the event each year and how to improve it "without taking away the reason it's so successful," namely the fact that it's small and more personal than some of the larger shows, said Mr. Vorhees. "At the same time, you have to look at how it's managed" and how to accommodate the people on the wait list and how to let new members take part fully in the organization.

Also, "we want the organization to grow," he continued. "The bottom line is, last year we had 162 exhibitors, and this year it'll be 193."

Asked if that number could be expected to keep growing in future years, Mr. Vorhees replied, "There is a general consensus that the show can never go over 200."

The closing reception will take place from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

While Southern Exposure 2009 takes place during the calendar year that marks the council's 10th anniversary - and the council will allude to that throughout the conference - the real celebration of that milestone will take place at its 2009 fall conference, which will take place Nov. 5-7 at Chateau Elan, just north of Atlanta in Braselton, GA.