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TAMPA, FL - By any and all accounts, the Southeast Produce Council's 2010 Retail and Foodservice Conference & Expo, held here March 4-6, was a major success, drawing more people to the event than ever before.

"If I were to ballpark [overall attendance], it would be in the 1,300 range," SPC Executive Director Terry Vorhees told The Produce News following the conclusion of the event, also known as Southern Exposure. Last year's conference and expo, also in Tampa, drew about 1,150.

The numbers for the retail and foodservice attendees are equally impressive, rising to 241 this year from 178 last year, according to Mr. Vorhees.

Following the annual golf tournament on Thursday, March 4, the conference got into high gear Friday morning with field tours.

The first stop was Clear Springs Packing LLC in Bartow, FL, about midway between Tampa and Orlando, where attendees had an opportunity to see state-of-the-art packing and grading operations at the company's 103,000- square-foot facility as well as the company's blueberry farm.

According to Carole McKenzie, vice president of public affairs at Clear Springs Farms, the company's blueberries generally start in mid- to late March and run to about May. The company's farm produced about 865,000 pounds of blues last year and could approach 1.5 million pounds this year, she told The Produce News during the tour.

The second and final stop was DiMare Fresh in Tampa, where Tom Bruno, director of operations at DiMare Fresh, spoke a bit about the facility. Attendees then toured the operation, which specializes in repacking and packaging of all tomato varieties.

After a Produce for Kids reception and a sponsors reception Friday evening, the day ended with the I Love the '80s gala opening party, which Mr. Vorhees noted was very successful and saw throngs of people enjoying the food and upbeat music well into the evening.

After two workshop sessions Saturday morning, the keynote luncheon began with the presentation of the third annual Lifetime Achievement Award, co- sponsored by the Southeast Produce Council and The Produce News, to Peter Pero III of Pero Family Farms. With his wife, children, grandchildren and business associates all looking on, Mr. Pero thanked the council for the honor and cited his family and associates for his and the company's success.

The keynote speaker was Greg Link, president and co-founder of CoveyLink Worldwide with partner Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Mr. Link spoke about doing business at the "Speed of Trust" in today's business climate.

"Being a resource and adding value is a big idea," he told the gathered retailers, growers and marketers. "Building on trust and integrity is a lost art. You don't know it's there until it is lost."

Mr. Covey said that trust and integrity are "durable assets with a financial payoff." He noted that a consumer survey conducted last year showed that 77 percent of Americans said they were less likely to trust businesses in 2009 than they had been a year before.

"Trust is really a measurable economic driver," Mr. Covey said. "It's the number one leadership competency in today's collaborative global economy." But fortunately, "Trust is a skill you can learn and teach your entire organization and supply chain - fast. Trust won't make a bad strategy good, but it makes a good strategy better."

After lunch, attendees had all afternoon to walk the aisles of the expo, always a highlight of Southern Exposure. The council limits the expo to 200 booths so that retail and foodservice buyers have ample time to spend with all the exhibitors. Traffic during the expo was solid and consistent, according to numerous sources.

"We had really good, positive comments about the whole conference - of course the trade show in particular," said Mr. Vorhees, who had already received an e-mail from Garry Bergstrom of Publix Supermarkets that read, "We really enjoyed the conference. Great job. Looking forward to the next one."

Mr. Vorhees said that one exhibitor told him, "We saw everybody that we wanted to see - and people we didn't even think would be here. We couldn't be happier."

Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce and floral at Kings Super Markets, who was attending his first Southern Exposure, told The Produce News on the expo floor, "This is first class. Anybody who's anybody is here. This expo is filled with everything you need to know about the industry."

Steve Williams, director of produce at Sweetbay Supermarkets and a member of the SPC board of directors, told The Produce News, "It's about building relationships. [This event] is the right size, and I think this is one of the most organized. Just look at the turnout!"

Keith Frosceno, vice president of produce merchandising at Price Chopper Supermarkets, said, "This far exceeds my expectations. This feels much bigger than a regional show. It will be on our schedule in the future."

The council added a new twist this year by choosing three booths that best followed the "I Love the '80s" theme of the 2010 event. First place went to Apio Inc., where a booth featured a theater that showed movies from the 1980s. Second place went to DiMare Fresh, and third place went to NorthBay Produce.

There is a different theme to every Southern Exposure, and the council plans to continue the practice of honoring those booths that best follow the theme at all future expos, according to Mr. Vorhees.

The 2011 Southern Exposure will be held March 3-5 at the Caribe Royale Resort & Conference Center in Orlando, FL.