ORLANDO, Fla. — The Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure 2011 opened with record participation.

The organization’s big winter event saw large numbers of retail, foodservice and wholesale buyers converge on the Sunshine State.

Terry Vorhees, the Riverview-based council’s executive director, said 1,340 people registered to attend the March 3-5 retail and foodservice conference and exposition, up from the 1,300 that participated last year. He said several retailers came in at the last minute.

On March 3, the council’s yearly golf tournament saw 270 contestants, up from last year’s 225, Vorhees said.

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 learn about fruit variety development.

Visiting the 102-year-old Haines City Citrus Growers Association, Haines City, which markets its fruit through DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, buyers saw the fresh citrus packing process from grove to packaging and shipment.

“Our industry has a rich tradition that is able to overcome hurricanes and diseases,” said Greg Nelson, DNE’s president. “One of the reasons is due to the fortitude of the people in this business.”

At the association, buyers visited a valencia grove to see late-season fruit being harvested and saw grapefruit and valencias running on the packing line, which has seen up to $15 million in packinghouse improvements over the last decade, Nelson said.

At the Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Peter Chaires, director of strategic management and business development for Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland, and executive director of the industry’s New Varieties Development & Management Corp., discussed how the industry is trying to speed the process of bringing new varieties into commercial use.

“We have a tremendous opportunity for replacing many of our specialty varieties (tangerines) and the capacity for introducing many new varieties into the market-place,” he said.

In March 5 sessions, industry leaders learned more about how to successfully introduce new produce products at retail and how to 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 and what consumers care about remains relevant to the process of introducing new items.

“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 just 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.

“I’m not recommending you dump everything else and only focus on social media because it’s not going to work,” Avola said. “You need to tie everything together from direct mail pieces to phone service calls, and integrate that into your social media strategy.”

The meeting continued on March 5 with a keynote luncheon, a large trade show featuring 200 exhibits as well as the conference's closing reception.

Southeast Produce Council meeting opens to record numbers

Doug Ohkemeier

Greg Nelson (center), president of DNE World Fruit Sales, talks about citrus production to a group of buyers visiting citrus groves at the Haines City Citrus Growers Association during a March 4 tour at Southern Exposure 2011.