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The Southeast Produce Council is expecting strong attendance -- especially from retailers in the Southeast and Northeast -- at its seventh annual Retail & Foodservice Conference & Exposition, set for March 4-6 in Tampa, FL.

The conference and expo, known as Southern Exposure 2010, will also see the mix of education sessions, field tours, social events and networking opportunities that have made it consistently one of the premier events in the produce industry.

"When I think about total numbers, if you look at exhibitors and attendees, I'm thinking it'll probably come in pretty close to last year," SPC Executive Director Terry Vorhees told The Produce News Feb. 4. "It's still hard to say" with the conference a few weeks away, "but that number is going to fall around 1,100 to 1,200."

He continued, "What's up this year is the retail and foodservice attendees. We've got a lot more new companies -- retail particularly -- that are attending for the first time." While the conference will see a very strong presence, as always, from retailers based in the Southeast, such as Sweetbay, Publix and Winn-Dixie, this year's event will see "tremendous turnout out of the Northeast," said Mr. Vorhees, mentioning as just some examples D'Agostino Inc., Key Food Stores Cooperative, Wegmans Food Markets, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Shaw's Supermarkets, Stop & Shop, Hannaford Supermarkets, A&P, Kings Super Markets and Roche Bros.

The event will begin, as usual, with a golf tournament at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 4, at the Lake Jovita Golf Club. The awards dinner for the golfers will take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Friday's activities will begin at 8 a.m. with two field tours.

The first stop will be Clear Springs Packing LLC. Situated on 18,000 acres in Bartow, FL, about midway between Tampa and Orlando, attendees will have the opportunity, among other things, to see the latest in innovative land use and production management practices on the company's 220-acre blueberry farm.

The group will then go to DiMare Fresh's Tampa location, first for a barbecue lunch, then for a tour of the facility, which primarily specializes in the repacking and packaging of all tomato varieties, with state-of-the-art equipment servicing retail, foodservice and quick-serve restaurant customers.

A Produce for Kids reception (by invitation) will take place from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Marriott Waterside Hotel, followed by the Sponsors VIP reception (by invitation) from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., also at the Marriott. The gala opening party with the theme, "I Love the '80s," will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Marriott.

"It's really going to be good," said Mr. Vorhees. "The whole conference has this 'I Love the '80s' theme," and the opening gala party will really reflect that. A "DJ-VJ," as Mr. Vorhees described him, will play hits from the 1980s, and a 60-inch screen will show television hit shows from the era. There will also be prizes for attendees whose attire best reflects the 1980s.

Saturday's events will begin with two education workshops at the Tampa Convention Center.

The first, called Production Trends Shaping our Industry: Traceability/Food Safety, Sustainability & Locally Grown, will be held from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Ronnie L. De La Cruz of De La Cruz Consulting & Training will moderate this session. On the panel will be Edith Garrett, vice president of quality and safety for Danaco Solutions LLC; Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Co.; and Kevin M. Delaney, director of corporate sustainability and productivity for Procacci Bros. Sales Corp.

The second, called Marketing & Merchandising Trends: WIC Nutrition Program, Consumer Trends in This Economy and Social Marketing, will be held from 9:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Heidi McIntyre, president of McIntyre Marketing Inc., will moderate this session. On the panel will be Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association; John Avola, market and Internet development manager at Produce for Kids; and Dick McKellogg, produce and floral director for Lowes Food Stores Inc.

The keynote luncheon follows, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., where the council's third annual Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Peter Pero III of Pero Family Farms. The Produce News is a co-sponsor of this award. Greg Link, a recognized authority on leadership, sales and marketing as well as co-founder and president of CoveyLink Worldwide, will then deliver the keynote speech, with the theme, The Speed of Trust.

Immediately following the luncheon, the expo will open with a ribbon- cutting ceremony at 1:30 p.m., also at the convention center.

There were 95 exhibitors at the council's first expo in 2004 in Lakeland, FL. That number had jumped to 192 last year in Tampa. The decision was made after last year to "max this out" at 200, and that figure will be the cap "for the foreseeable future," said Mr. Vorhees.

New this year at the expo: "We will have three individuals yet to be determined who will be on the trade show floor" judging which booths best reflect the "I Love the '80s" theme. Those individuals (not directors, board members or exhibitors, noted Mr. Vorhees) will announce the first-, second- and third-place winners on the trade show floor around 5:30 p.m., about a half-hour before the expo closes. The council intends to continue that contest at all future expos.

The 2010 Southern Exposure will conclude with the closing reception from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Marriott.

Asked why he thought the annual event has grown so much and been so successful in its short history, Mr. Vorhees offered a few reasons. "One is the size of the trade show," he stated. "It doesn't get too huge. It gives the retailers enough time, it gives the exhibitors enough time." Also, "those people that are on the trade show floor -- 95 percent of them are people that buy the exhibitors' products. They're the decision-makers."

He shared a quote from Robert Van Liew of Associated Wholesalers Inc. in Robesonia, PA, as to why Southern Exposure is so successful: "Friendly people, focused event; large enough to be cost effective, small enough to be people effective."

Mr. Vorhees also pointed to the historical importance of the Southeast in supplying such a varied volume of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially during the spring and fall seasons, to retailers throughout the United States, particularly those in the Midwest and along the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Finally, Mr. Vorhees noted the networking opportunities as well as the old- fashioned idea of people meeting face to face in the age of e-mails and Internet communications. "One of the goals behind the council when we started was to put a face to a name," he said. "And I think what's happened is that a lot of those folks [retailers] may have been talking on the phone to a grower-shipper down here but didn't get the opportunity as much as they'd like to be able to come down and actually meet with those growers."

And in fact, "We have more going on the field tours than we've ever had," said Mr. Vorhees. And of course, he quipped, "It's pretty nice down here in March."