Circus thrills aim to promote a festive mood at this year’s Southern Exposure, which organizers expect to attract a record number of produce buyers.

Scheduled for Feb. 27 to March 1, the show’s “Under the Big Top” theme promises a carnival-like gathering for the many retail and foodservice buying executives, grower-shippers and other suppliers, brokers, marketers and industry people planning to trek to the Caribe Royal Resort & Conference Center in Orlando, Fla.

In its 11th year, the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure also plans changes to the show’s educational sessions, networking receptions and parties and the large trade show affording time for buyers and sellers to interact.

As of mid-February, more than 350 retail and foodservice attendees — including buyers, vice presidents of produce and produce directors — had registered for the show, considerably more than the 251 that attended last year’s show, according to show organizers.

“We call it the greatest produce show on earth,” said show chairman Bobby Creel, director of business development for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.

“We’ve heard that for years from the people that attend, but this year, we have a name that goes with it.”

This year, 267 companies are expected to exhibit their products during the March 1 expo, higher than the 234 exhibitors that exhibited last year.

The larger number of exhibitors and exhibit space follows a decision by the council’s board to increase participation.

In all, more than 1,600 industry people are expected, similar to the 1,625 that trekked to Orlando last year and the 1,599 that participated in the Tampa, Fla., show in 2012, said Terry Vorhees, the East Ellijay, Ga.-based council’s executive director.

In mid-February, he said the council had received 1,726 registrations, up from the 1,449 registrations it received by the same time last year.

A longtime attendance committee chairman, Creel credits the show’s success to the retail and foodservice executives who participate, the show’s sponsors and the many volunteers who serve on council committees that plan the event.

“All the committee members put forth a lot of time for this show,” he said.

“In terms of the quality of the retail and foodservice executives that are planning to attend, this show should be the best. It should be the best attendance we’ve ever had.”

As in other years, pre-show interest also remains strong for the other Southern Exposure activities.

This year, nearly 900 people have preregistered for the March 1 keynote luncheon that precedes the expo’s opening.

That’s considerably higher than the 780 that attended last year, Vorhees said.

For the Feb. 28 circus-themed gala opening party, more than 1,000 have signed-up for the event, which drew 1,285 participants last year.

Large participation is also expected for Feb. 28 educational sessions.

This year’s workshops are scheduled to address improving customer connections and how social media is affecting consumer shopping trends.

A new show activity is the council’s retail and foodservice appreciation lunch.

Scheduled for Feb. 28, the invitation-only luncheon is to help the council’s directors become better acquainted with the many buyers that participate in the show, Vorhees said.

“The luncheon will be very informal and will be a way we can express our appreciation for their support of the show,” he said.

“This show usually attracts 250-300 buyers. Out of those that come to the show, unless they’re based in the Southeast, most of our directors wouldn’t know them if they walked into the room.”

Vorhees said the council plans to host the luncheon during future Southern Exposures.

Additionally, the council this year plans to kick off its first Tom Page Golf Classic.

Scheduled for Feb. 27, the annual opening day golf tournament is now named for past council president and founding member Tom Page, the East Coast procurement manager for the Lakeland, Fla., office of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu Inc., who retired last year.

“This organization would not be what it is today without Tom’s help and guidance over the years,” Vorhees said.

“We’ve named the tournament for him for all the things he’s done for the council.”

At the council’s first Southern Exposure in 2004 in Lakeland, Page was the one who came up with the idea of a contest among the council’s leaders to see how many booth spaces the group could sell, Vorhees said.