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SPC has much to celebrate as 10th annual trade show rolls around

A decade ago, the still-new Southeast Produce Council held its first Southern Exposure trade show with less than 100 businesses participating. This year, hundreds from the industry will gather at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando, FL, Feb. 28-March 2, more than 230 companies will be exhibiting on the trade show floor and there is a waiting list both for booth space and entrance to this year’s keynote luncheon.

SEPC-4The Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando, FL, home to Southern Exposure 2013. (Photo courtesy of Caribe Royale)That is a far cry from the original meeting of the council, which drew six or seven participants, depending on whom one asks.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the council’s growth and success can be seen in the keynote speakers at the first Southern Exposure and the 10th. At the first gathering, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach John Gruden spoke, fresh off a Super Bowl victory. This year’s keynote speaker will be legendary college football coach Lou Holtz, who won a national championship while at Notre Dame and is now a well-known analyst with ESPN.

The difference may not be obvious off the bat: Both men are high-caliber speakers who command mid-five figure fees for appearances. But 10 years ago, Coach Gruden’s appearance came gratis as a result of then-SPC President Al Finch of Florida Classic Growers in Dundee, FL, calling in a few favors. Coach Holtz will be at Southern Exposure 2013 because he will be getting paid from the council’s bulging coffers.

“That just shows how we’ve grown and how successful the Southeast Produce Council has become as the result of a lot of people putting in a lot of hours to try and make this the strongest regional organization in the country,” said President Andrew Scott, sales manager for Atlanta’s General Produce Inc. “That first keynote luncheon was at the Lakeland [FL] Civic Center, Al Finch pulled some strings. It was really funny, the board of directors then would have contests to see who could sign up the most booths — and now we’ve got a waiting list of 70 vendors, which is about how many we had exhibiting at that first show. Isn’t that incredible? We were just trying to get as many people as we could in and now it’s morphed into this. We’ll have 238 vendors at the Caribe and will probably expand that for next year.”

Mr. Scott took the reins as council president in September and realizes his primary job is “just trying to control the growth and make sure we maintain value for our members and exhibitors. We want to push the envelope and do as much as we can, but we don’t want to saturate the trade show floor.”

Part of Southern Exposure’s unique appeal and success model comes in the presence of the myriad retail, wholesale and foodservice buyers that show up in droves each spring.

“That’s the key to our success,” Mr. Scott said. “We bring in decision makers and people who write the purchase orders. The success and strength of the council lies in giving back to our members with a show like this and bringing in all these decision makers.”

It does not hurt that Southern Exposure is held in sunny Florida in late February. Mr. Scott said it is not a tough sell to convince winter-weary buyers from northern climes to come spend a few days in the Sunshine State networking, learning and — of course — playing.

Many conferences and conventions offer a golf tournament as part of the proceedings; few take that charge as seriously as the SPC. This year the annual kick-off tournament is scheduled for Orlando’s Reunion Resort, which features signature design courses by three of golf’s greatest legends, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer.

“We’re excited about golf at Reunion, we’re going to have over 250 golfers,” Mr. Scott said. “Reunion is just, wow, first class — first-class time, first-class facilities, and that’s what we strive for. We had a little SPC strategy meeting there and we had a good time, the course is a lot of fun.”

There are some who suggest that Mr. Scott, an admitted ‘80s enthusiast, also held some sway in the theme of the expo’s main party, a retro “Back to the Eighties” extravaganza that will feature live music from nationally known tribune band The Breakfast Club as well as a deejay for those who want to dance the night away.

“The Friday night gala is going to be awesome,” Mr. Scott said. While he denied exerting undue influence on the selection of themes, Mr. Scott did indicate that power has its privileges.

But it also includes responsibilities. For six months, Mr. Scott has been filling the oversized shoes of recent past President John Shuman of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA, who was at the helm during a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity for the council.

“It’s gone pretty smoothly, John did a great job of setting the deck for me,” Mr. Scott said. “There really haven’t been any surprises. Terry Vorhees [SPC executive director] and the staff have done a tremendous job, they’re damn good and they make it easy for the leadership to do what we need to do.”

“Terry basically runs stuff by me and most of the time I always go with his recommendations,” he continued. “We think alike and agree on things, we really do. I’ve learned more and more about all the committees that are part of being president, you want to have your hand in on what all they’re all doing. I try to be on every single conference call all the committees have, too, and there are a lot of them, sometimes three in a day. It just takes a little bit of extra time. But so far everything’s been pretty smooth. I can honestly say I love it.”