Southern Exposure 2021 will celebrate 'The Rise of Produce'
The fresh produce industry will gather the first week in April for the Southeast Produce Council's Southern Exposure 2021 conference and expo, its premier annual event, which this year is themed "The Rise of Produce."
Attendees can expect many of the popular business and social events that Southern Exposure is known for, such as two powerhouse educational sessions, the Southern Roots luncheon, a spectacular opening gala, the keynote luncheon and, of course, the exposition.
But they will also notice some differences due to the continuing influences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first difference is the date. While usually held at the very end of February or the first week of March, the council had previously announced that it was rescheduling Southern Exposure to right after Easter 2021. While the venue remained the same — the Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando, FL — “The Rise of Produce” will take place April 6-8.
Another major difference is that Southern Exposure 2021 will be a combination of in-person and virtual activities, so that those who are unable or reluctant to travel can still take part in almost everything that will be happening.
Prior to the official start of Southern Exposure, the board of directors will meet Monday, April 5, and the VIP dinner will take place in the evening. “Hopefully that will get us in a good frame of mind to get going for the rest of the week,” David Sherrod, the council’s president and chief executive officer, told The Produce News March 4 in an exclusive interview.
Tuesday morning begins with the Tom Page Golf Classic, which is named for one of the founders of the council. The STARS & STEP-UPP Dinner (by invitation only) will take place that evening for those involved in two of the council’s outstanding programs: the Southeast Top Agricultural Recruits Scholarship program and the Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals.
At the STARS breakfast on Wednesday morning, April 7, Dan’l Mackey Almy, president and CEO of DMA Solutions, and Wendy McManus, executive leadership coach at Connect 2 Potential, will speak to the students, as they have done in previous years.
“I think that everybody gets something out of this from both of these speakers,” said Sherrod. “It’s very relevant to these students. They really get a lot out of hearing Dan’l’s perspective on being in the industry, which she is so passionate about. And then Wendy helps them to learn how to really network. That’s another important life skill. So, we’re excited that we can keep doing that session, especially this year in the pandemic.”
Sherrod noted that a few students who are unable to travel would still be participating virtually in the STARS breakfast.
Two educational sessions are scheduled for Wednesday.
The first is titled “It’s Not Personal, It’s Generational,” from 8:30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. Moderator Patrick Kelly of The Produce Industry Podcast will lead a discussion on how generations can thrive together in life and work. He will be joined by panelists Mason Goolsby, marketing coordinator at Shuman Farms; Clark Roper, senior produce buyer at Piggly Wiggly; Dave Verdrager, business development manager at B&W Quality Growers; Lucretia Parish, vice president of sales SE at Giorgio Fresh Co.; and Joe McGee, founder and chairman of L&M Cos. Inc.
“What a representation of our industry on this panel,” exclaimed Sherrod. “We have people from 23 years old to 85 years old on this panel, especially that 85-year-old man that I love dearly. We can all take a lesson from what Joe McGee can teach us. What a blessing to have Joe on this panel.”
The second session is titled “The Power of Produce 2021,” from 10:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. As a sponsor of this study, SEPC looks forward to year three of bringing these valuable insights to the produce industry. “We love our collaboration with FMI where we can debut this each year,” said Sherrod.
Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods at FMI, will speak in a video presentation, and Anne-Marie Roerink, a principal at 210 Analytics LLC, will appear in person. They will be joined by panelists Gary Baker, senior director of fresh at Merchants Distributors Inc., Price Mabry, director of produce and floral at HAC Inc. and Mike Roberts, director of produce operations at Harps Food Stores.
“I’m really excited about this session, too, since all three young men on the panel are STEP-UPP graduates,” Sherrod said with pride. “It’s wonderful to see that these participants in STEP-UPP now have been elevated in their own companies, taking on senior management roles. It’s like Faye [Westfall] always says, they’re like our kids, and now they’re coming into roles of prominence in our industry, and it’s great to see that.”
Next up will be the Southern Roots luncheon, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., where attendees will hear from Sarah Frey, founder and CEO of Frey Farms. In her presentation, described as “how I saved an American farm and built a new life,” Frey will share her inspiring story of how a scrappy rural childhood gave her the resiliency to take risks that paid off in unexpected ways.
The STARS Cocktails & Careers will take place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. This will be a virtual-only event, but both in-person and off-site students will be able to engage with potential future employers.
The Healthy Family Project (formerly Produce for Kids) reception will take place from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the Retail & Foodservice reception will take place from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Both are by invitation only.
The opening gala will start at 7 p.m.
“This is going to be a little different this year because of the social distancing protocols,” explained Sherrod. “We will be doing more of a sit-down dinner show vs. our usual dinner dance. We’ll have a comedian, Michael Jr., who will open up the gala. We’ll have some aerialists perform, and then an Eagles tribute band [The Dark Desert Highway Band] will perform during dinner.”
As Sherrod put it, the idea is to keep the congregating to a minimum. And other than while eating, “We will still be encouraging everyone to wear a mask when you get up from your table or when you’re walking around.”
On Thursday, April 8, the Keynote Luncheon will take place from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. One of the highlights will be a video presentation by Harold Paivarinta of Red Sun Farms and chairman of the SEPC board of directors, who will speak on the State of the Council and other topics.
The Next Generation Award is normally presented during Southern Innovations, the council’s fall event, but SI was canceled due to the pandemic. The council announced back in November via its Virtual Garden that Kristin Yerecic Scott, marketing director and Board of Officers member at Yerecic Label, was the 2020 honoree, and she will be recognized in person during the Keynote Luncheon.
The Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to the family of Martin Eubanks, who died Jan. 18, 2020, and who was instrumental in helping the council during its formative years.
Duncan Wardle, head of innovation and creativity at Disney, will deliver the keynote address.
In keeping with safety protocols, Sherrod said that the Keynote Luncheon would look a little different this year. To promote social distancing, the Keynote Luncheon will be utilizing “pretty much the whole ballroom” for the 600 or so people expected to attend. “It is way, way enough where people will be more than six feet apart. It’s a huge space, and we’re excited to have that much space,” he said.
Tables that can seat 10 or 12 will instead be set for only six people, “and we’re asking everybody to sit with the people they feel most comfortable with,” said Sherrod. “We’ll stay safe if we follow those rules.”
The council is allowing 30 minutes between the conclusion of the Keynote Luncheon and the next event, the expo.
“We don’t want people to be piled up at the doorways,” he said. “And then we’ll try to get people into the expo quickly, using multiple entry points.” Temperature checks will be available at the entrances, and sanitization stations will be located throughout the expo floor.
Retail and foodservice buyers, both in-person and off-site, will be able to interact with the people at the booths. “We’re approaching 200 virtual buyers to date, and hopefully we can get up to that 250 or even 300 mark,” said the SEPC president. “It’s very important that we have gotten the commitment from our retail-foodservice community that they will be engaged.”
He continued, “We’re happy that we have that kind of relationship with our retailer and foodservice buyers, that even in this year, as tough as it is, they are going to engage on our platform.”
This year’s expo will have about 275 exhibitors, almost the same as last year. However, due to the pandemic, “Some people pulled out, and some who have been on the wait list for a number of years have taken those spots,” explained Sherrod. “We’re excited for them to be able to have the opportunity to come in.”