UPDATED: Southern Exposure draws record crowd(UPDATED COVERAGE, March 6) ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s favorable weather likely helped the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure draw its largest crowd.

With the exception of some cool weather during the inaugural Tom Page Golf Classic, the 1,773 attendees — including more than 380 retail and foodservice buyers — enjoyed spring-like weather at the Feb. 27-March 1 show.

Last year, 1,625 participated.

“We have 900-plus people in the room now. That’s a long way from when we started in Lakeland,” show chairman Bobby Creel, director of business development for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos., said at a March 1 luncheon.

“This is the best show up and down the East Coast,” said Dominic Viglione, a produce buyer with BJ’s Wholesale Club, Westborough, Mass.

Houston-based Sysco Corp. brought 15 buying executives to walk the trade show floor, visit suppliers and attend company meetings.

“Who doesn’t want to come to Orlando, especially during this winter,” said Rich Dachman, Sysco’s vice president of produce. “I didn’t have to ask anyone twice.”

UPDATED: Southern Exposure draws record crowdThe March 1 expo included a record 268 exhibitors.

To accommodate the additional booth space, the council opened a smaller tent pavilion.

Some exhibitors reported slower than expected traffic during the show’s opening hours, especially in the new pavilion.

“Some didn’t know we were over here but we will deal with it,” said Dan Arnold, sales manager of Noble World Wide, the sales division of Winter Haven-based Wm. G. Roe & Sons Inc., said March 1.

Andy Brown, vice president of marketing for Fellsmere-based B&W Quality Growers Inc., said he was able to visit many customers at the booth in the new pavilion.

“There was a concern in the beginning, but it may have worked out for the better,” he said. “They put some major players here and mixed it up to where this area wasn’t all new people.”

Peter Leifermann, director of sales and fruit procurement for Homestead-based Brooks Tropicals LLC, said the regional show format encourages effective customer interaction.

“I have spoken with people that I know haven’t been here in years past,” he said. “The traffic continues to be top-notch and this show format is brilliant.”

UPDATED: Southern Exposure draws record crowdDuring his March 1 keynote speech, Bill Cowher, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach and CBS Sports NFL analyst, commended the industry for working to fight obesity.

“What you do in growing and servicing people with fruits and vegetables is amazing,” he said. “You can give yourselves a pat on the back for helping people eat more healthily. You’re like the offensive linemen of our economy. We couldn’t do what we do without you.”

Feb. 28 sessions covered how suppliers can make the most from customer meetings and how digital is affecting produce shopping trends.

“For my suppliers, it’s quality first and I need you to deliver,” said Teri Miller, produce category manager for Food Lion LLC, Salisbury, N.C., said in one session. “ ... It’s not about what you can do to get into my warehouse but what we’re going to do to sell more produce.”

John Avola, founder and managing partner of Memphis, Tenn.-based Idea Garden Marketing, discussed new consumer habits and how up to 80% of Gen-Y and 75% of Gen-X members use mobile devices for shopping-related activities.

“Consumers don’t shop in a linear fashion anymore,” Avola said. “All digital consumers are hyperconnected and are always connected. They want to go beyond just purchasing that product. They want to be known, want to be recognized and given the information they need at that time.”