Charlotte Vick, owner and sales manager for Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C., shows off the company’s Carolina Steamables microwaveable sweet potatoes during Southern Exposure 2018. ( File photo )

The Southeast Produce Council’s annual trade show, conference and expo, Southern Exposure, turns 20 this year, and the event has come a long way in those two decades, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development with Pompano, Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties.

Eagle said he remembers exhibiting at the SEPC’s first show, in Lakeland, Fla.

“I believe we had about 70 exhibitors and a goal of growing, eventually, to 100 exhibitors,” he said.

As of Feb. 1, more than 270 exhibitors had signed up for this year’s show, March. 7-9 at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Fla. 

“Fast-forward to today, and we have several hundred exhibitors and a waiting list for more,” Eagle said. 

“It’s getting more difficult to find venues due to the size of the show. The dinners, luncheons and presentations are all first class.”

Southern Exposure organizers have excelled in achieving a balance between “the intimate size of the show,” on one hand, and “the revenue it generates and buyers it is able to attract,” on the other, said Matt Mandel, vice president of operations with Rio Rico, Ariz.-based distributor SunFed.

“It has grown somewhat over the years, but it still has a very small feeling to it — in a good way,” he said. “We always look forward to attending and to spending that time with friends.”

Lucama, N.C.-based sweet potato grower-shipper Scott Farms Inc. has been to numerous Southern Exposures over the years and has noted the event’s growth, said Jeff Thomas, Scott Farms’ marketing director.

“The show continues to grow and innovate, as well,” he said. 

“Seeing new products and faces is always a great measuring stick of how it is progressing.”

This year’s Southern Exposure will be the first for Brianna Shales, communications manager for Wenatchee, Wash.-based fruit grower-shipper Stemilt Growers LLC.

“I haven’t personally been to SEPC yet, but our team that does attend is always thrilled with how well attended and executed the show is,” she said. 

“It’s a great time to connect with customers, network with industry peers, and learn through the education sessions.”

Plant City, Fla.-based berry grower-shipper Wish Farms has been to the past eight Southern Exposures, and the event’s growth is notable, said Nick Wishnatzki, marketing projects manager.

“It’s our understanding there is a waiting list for exhibit space, which certainly makes the show feel more exclusive for participants,” he said.

“We are happy the show is so well-received, but as a vendor, we hope the show continues to showcase the Southeast.”

SEPC has added booths to accommodate “the tremendous amount of industry interest” in participating in Southern Exposure, said Gary Caloroso, regional business development director with Los Angeles-based Giumarra Cos.

“We really enjoy the great program that SEPC puts together,” Caloroso said.

Interest in Southern Exposure is growing well beyond the Southeast region, noted Caitlin Klueber, business development representative for the Southeast at Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group. 

“We are seeing more retailers from the Northeast and from Canada,” said Klueber, who works in Oppy’s Tampa, Fla., office. 

“SEPC makes sure wholesaler, foodservice, growers and supply chain sectors are all well-represented. It’s a good snapshot of the industry and what it is like to do business in the Southeast.”