Exposition changes should help sellers meet more buyers during Southern Exposure 2012. In its ninth year, the Southeast Produce Council’s retail and foodservice conference and exposition, scheduled for March 1-3 at Florida’s Tampa Convention Center, promises to attract even more retail produce buyers, foodservice buyers, produce procurers, growers, packers, shippers, brokers, marketers and other allied industry people.

"Hollywood’s Golden Era" is the theme of this year’s show.

Show-goers plan to don movie star garb during the show’s March 2 opening gala party and exhibitors should design their booths with Hollywood themes. Other than that, show visitors should expect to see some small changes that sponsors hope could increase interaction between grower-shippers and produce buyers.

The March 3 expo features more exhibitors and 90 minutes of additional expo floor time. The council increased the show’s number of booths to 240.

As preregistrations in February were running high, organizers expect another year of high turnout of buyers.

Terry Vorhees, executive director of the East Ellijay, Ga.-based council, said as of mid-February 260 retail and foodservice buyers registered for the show. That’s as strong as the 267 who registered at the same time last year ahead of last year’s show. Up to 280 buyers participated last year and Vorhees said he expects this year’s event to attract as many if not more.

"This show has been a big success for the council," Vorhees said. "We owe a lot of the success of this thing to the members and the people serving on the committees, making sure they reach out to their contacts.

"Our goal every year is to get previous year’s attendees to return but also to reach out to people who haven’t been here. Every year we’ve been fortunate to be able to do that by getting five to six companies to come for the first time. If we can get them there once, they will see the quality of the show and hopefully come back and bring others with them."

Last year’s extravaganza attracted a record 1,403 participants, higher than the 1,300 who traveled to Tampa in 2010.

As of mid-February, 1,354 preregistered, up from the 1,340 preregistrations the show received at the same time in 2011.

"This shows that the retailers, the buyers and the directors and vice presidents of produce, they see a value out of being at this show," Vorhees said. "It also shows me that when we first started in 2004, we were pulling strictly Southeastern and regional grocery chains. Today, they come from Canada, California and Texas. We are a regional council and show, but we have been fortunate enough to pull attendance nationally."

As preregistrations for nonretail and foodservice buyer attendees closed in mid-February, Vorhees said the council accepts buyer registrations up to March 1.

The event is scheduled to unofficially begin on March 1 with a pre-show golf tournament at the Lake Jovita Golf Club in Dade City north of Tampa. The sold-out tournament includes an evening awards dinner.

On March 2, educational field tours mark the conference’s official start.

Busloads of retail and foodservice participants are scheduled to visit Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc.’s Port of Manatee import operations and Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms’ strawberry and vegetable growing and shipping operations in eastern Hillsborough County.

The council welcomes participants through its March 2 Hollywood-themed evening gala opening party in the Grand Ballroom of the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.

Two March 3 morning educational sessions at the Tampa Convention Center are planned to cover produce traceability and how food bloggers are influencing produce consumers.

After the sessions, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is scheduled to deliver the conference’s March 3 keynote address during the event’s brunch.

The expo opens at noon and closes at 6 p.m., in time for the closing evening reception on the Marriott’s waterside patio.

Unlike the opening gala, which features the big Hollywood costume theme, singing by a Frank Sinatra imitator and a deejay hosting a dance to the sounds of classic rock music, the March 3 closing reception also features musical entertainment but should offer a more relaxed atmosphere, Vorhees said. Both receptions require special tickets.

Vorhees said he expects this year’s opening gala party to surpass last year’s 800 participants.

This year, the Hyatt Regency Tampa joins the show’s other official hotels, the Tampa Marriott Waterside and the Embassy Suites Tampa-Downtown Convention Center.

Vorhees said the Hyatt is a short walk up the street from the other two hotels, which are across the street from the convention center’s entrance.

"We try to do as much as we can to make sure our retail and foodservice attendees are staying in the conference hotels," Vorhees said. "Tampa is a great venue for our show. You have the convention center with all the hotels. People say flying to Tampa is easy and not far from the airport to downtown Tampa."