(UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:20 p.m.) ORLANDO, Fla. — Attracted by the rays of Florida’s sunshine, the Southeast Produce Council attracted its biggest number of retail and foodservice buyers ever at its yearly conference and exposition.
Southern Exposure 2011 drew 1,409 retail, foodservice and wholesale professionals to the Caribe Royale Resort & Conference Center for the March 3-5 event.
Terry Vorhees, the Riverview-based council’s executive director, said the 1,340 registrations the group had on March 4 quickly increased as more attendees from central Florida foodservice operations such as Darden Restaurants registered on site. This year’s show surpassed last year’s record 1,300 participants.
Up to 307 produce purchasers participated in the golf tournament, field tours, educational sessions, trade show, receptions and parties, up 22% from the 241 in 2010, Vorhees said.
Exhibitors and buyers expressed satisfaction with show turnout.
“This is a big turnout. This thing really rocks,” said Steve Williams, director of produce and floral for Sweetbay Supermarkets, Tampa, a division of the Brussels-based Delhaize Group. “As long as it keeps increasing membership value, it will continue to grow.”
On March 4, buses loaded with retail and foodservice buyers visited central Florida citrus groves and a citrus research center to see harvesting, packing and fruit variety development.
Visiting a valencia grove, buyers saw late-season fruit harvesting and watched grapefruit and oranges running at the Haines City Citrus Growers Association’s packinghouse, viewing fresh citrus from grove to shipment.
“Our industry has a rich tradition that is able to overcome hurricanes and diseases,” said Greg Nelson, president of DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, which markets the association’s fruit. “One of the reasons is due to the fortitude of the people in this business.”
At the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Lake Alfred citrus research station, the visitors also heard how researchers are developing improved peach varieties to serve the state’s growing peach industry.
In March 5 sessions, industry leaders learned how to successfully introduce produce products with retailers and engage their target audience through social media.
Don Goodwin, owner and president of Golden Sun Marketing, Minnetrista, Minn., said staying in tune and designing promotions relevant to consumers remains key in the product introduction process.
“If we were to analyze why most new items fail, it’s because of execution at store level,” Goodwin said. “Introduction of successful items requires a very comprehensive strategy. You can’t do it by just handing a list of components to a retailer anymore. You have to find ways to engage a retailer more strongly and more professionally and have more of a plan in place.”
John Avola, social media strategist and co-owner of 90 Days to Marketing Success, said social media should remain part of a company’s marketing strategy.
“Some people are taking social media by storm, while others are trying to figure out what it is,” he said. “I’m not recommending you dump everything else and only focus on social media because it’s not going to work. You need to tie everything together from direct mail pieces to phone service calls, and integrate that into your social media strategy.”
The March 5 keynote luncheon speaker was Georgia commissioner of agriculture Gary Black.
“We in agriculture are in challenging times,” he said. “Some may say these are the most challenging times we have ever faced. That’s why all of us in agriculture must come together and plan for the future.”
The event also included a large trade show featuring 200 exhibits.