Superheroes out in force at Southern Exposure 2022
ORLANDO, FL — The produce industry gathered in force the first week in March at the Southeast Produce Council's Southern Exposure 2022 conference and trade show to celebrate "The Marvel of Produce" and reconnect in person with colleagues and friends. For many attendees, it was the first time they had seen one another in a couple of years, as the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic finally seems to be in the rearview mirror.
"Our members came back in full force, and we couldn't be happier," said David Sherrod, the council's president and CEO. "There's just a feeling of togetherness. It was a great homecoming and family reunion."
This year's event drew more than 2,800 registrations, including more than 500 retail, foodservice, wholesale buyers. "I think there's no better buyer-to-seller ratio in our industry," he said. "I just feel like we've been blessed. It couldn't have been any better as far as we're concerned. We didn't just come back. We came back even better than we were in 2020. Every session during this week has been sold out. Everything that we did, starting from Thursday all the way through [the end], exceeded every number that we ever hit."
He continued, "We had over 700 people attend the two educational sessions. That's not a total. Each one had 700, and The Power of Produce was probably closer to 750."
Keynote speaker Tim Tebow "really gave a riveting speech," reminding everyone to "make sure we help people who can't help themselves," said Sherrod. "It was a lesson we all could use."
The trade show Saturday afternoon was packed. "People were raring to go and get back together and really network," he said. "It was so welcomed to see everybody come back and support SEPC after two hard years."
The costumed superheroes who were present throughout the events added a sense of fun to Southern Exposure, but they also served as a reminder of some very important values.
As Raina Nelson, chairman of the SEPC board of directors, said at the Keynote Luncheon, "The Marvel Cinematic Universe revolves around themes like teamwork, using our powers for the greater good, standing up for what you believe in, and working together for a better future. The Southeast Produce Council operates on very similar themes and core values."
She added, "The platform of my chairmanship is the Next Generation of Superheroes. There is no better time than the present to invest in the future. It is critical to focus on identifying and developing the next generation of leaders in our industry and within our companies. We may have to take different approaches to developing that next generation, but it is imperative that we cultivate talent and ensure that the future of our industry is bright."
Southern Exposure 2022 took place March 3-5 at the Swan & Dolphin Resort, here, beginning Thursday with the annual Tom Page Golf Classic, where more than 280 golfers participated.
The winning foursome on the National Course were Jeff Weaver and Ray England of D.J. Forry, Aaron Miller of Booth Ranches and Robin Hayes of Mitchell Grocery Corp. The winning foursome on the International Course at the Tom Page Golf Classic were Bill Pollard of Dollar General with Zac Goodno, Dug Schwalls and Allen Dalton of Southern Valley.
The STARS & STEP-UPP Dinner took place Thursday evening at Disney's Animal Kingdom for those involved in the Southeast Top Agricultural Recruits Scholarship program and the Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals. And for the first time, all of the Next Generation nominees participated at this dinner, where they were recognized.
The STARS breakfast took place Friday morning. Dan'l Mackey Almy, CEO of DMA Solutions, and Wendy McManus, executive leadership coach at Connect 2 Potential, returned. Students had the opportunity to hear from panelists Meghan Diaz, East Coast senior market manager for produce and floral at Sprouts Farmers Market; Amanda Keefer, managing director at Healthy Family Project; and Matt Musgrave, category manager for value added produce at Food Lion.
The two educational sessions took place Friday morning, followed by the Southern Roots luncheon for women in produce.
The Southeast Produce Council has long been known for its charitable efforts, and during Saturday's Keynote Lunch, Chairman Nelson presented checks to five organizations: Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Palmer Home for Children, Paul Anderson Youth Home and Society of St. Andrew.
Alexis Olsen, daughter of Melissa Olsen of US Foods, received the 2022 Vorhees Vision Scholarship of $7,500. Alexis was able to attend the Keynote Lunch, where she came on stage to thank the council.
The 2022 Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Bobby Creel of L&M Cos.
Tim Tebow, a first-round National Football League draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner, delivered the Keynote Address in which he spoke passionately about the importance of helping others in need.
The trade show that followed was jam-packed with people enjoying the 275 booths from exhibitors all over the country.
The Produce News spoke to a number of people on the expo floor to ask their impressions of Southern Exposure 2022.
Charlie Eagle of Southern Specialties said, "All the stars were aligned for a great show. There was great attendance, great weather, and great sessions and meetings. Southern Specialties brought a few extra personnel from our Pompano Beach headquarters to gain exposure to industry shows. Our 'Southern Selects' value-added lineup was well received. And we had an opportunity to introduce our company to several retailers and foodservice distributors attending Southern Exposure for the first time. The organization continues to provide a venue that gives us a huge bang for the buck and sets the bar for regional trade show events. I just love getting together with fellow produce professionals. I think we're still in a relationship-based industry with many passionate people."
Kevin Donovan of Phillips Mushroom Farms, who is retiring at the end of March, said, "There are a lot of happy people here today. Everyone I speak to is happy to be out and about and seeing other people. SEPC keeps doing better and better every year, and it keeps raising the bar."
Tom Beaver of Sunny Valley International said, "It's great to see such a strong crowd here. We weren't able to be at this show last year, so we're glad to be back to see our customers and supplier-partners from the Southeast. The timing of this show is very good for us as we're in the process of planning for our South Carolina peach program and our New Jersey blueberry and stone fruit programs. The SEPC puts on as good a show as anybody, and we always appreciate the emphasis that they put on bringing retailers and suppliers together."
Maclaren Oglesby of Sbrocco International said, "We're really excited to be back in person for the event where most of our retail partners are able to come. We've had great turnout — record turnout — at all the events. We're excited to be with our friends and our partners again. The Southeast Produce Council has done an amazing job coordinating efforts, coordinating the committees and coordinating the programming that really puts us in an intimate environment. Now that most of the restrictions are lifted for people to travel again, I think they're experiencing the true value of the show, because you lost it for a little bit and now we're all back together. It's really a wonderful thing to see."
Rick Estess of RPE Inc. said, "I think this is the best show that we've had — ever. The attendance has been outstanding as far as retail [is concerned]. I tell you, it's great looking in that rear-view mirror and seeing COVID because everybody has really come out and been very supportive of the show. It's been a marvelous day today. The value of what we are getting as an exhibitor is off the charts. We had really great success introducing a couple of new products in front of a lot of outstanding retailers." Asked what his favorite part of Southern Exposure is, Estess replied, "Usually I would say the show itself, but tied for first this time is probably hearing Tim Tebow speak. Hearing how his life is and his priorities really made me think."
Finally, David Sherrod reflected on the entire event. "Even the closing reception was packed, there were people as far as you could see on that beach. To see that again, and be able to hug people again, was wonderful. And now we can't wait for Southern Innovations," which is scheduled for Sept. 22-24 in Nashville, TN. "And hopefully we'll see this same kind of excitement not just at our events but throughout the industry."