Southern Innovations 2022 elicits enthusiasm and high praise
NASHVILLE, TN — The crowds were out at Southern Innovations 2022. People were seeing new products, they were hearing about new ideas, they were making new contacts, they were reconnecting with old friends — and they were enjoying every minute.
As one participant put it, "It's a great opportunity to come and see what's new. I think every booth [has] something of a little different twist," whether it's a new flavor or new packaging. "That's why it's called innovation. And I think it's great."
The Southeast Produce Council's Southern Innovations 2022 was held Sept. 22-24 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, here. And there were many highlights at the event.
On Thursday, Sept. 22, at Southern Roots, the council's leadership program for women in produce, Dan'l Mackey Almy and Megan Zweig of DMA Solutions Inc. and co-hosts of Self Smarter Podcast spoke about the importance of self-awareness both personally and professionally. The Welcome Reception that evening drew an absolutely huge crowd.
The educational workshops were held Friday morning, followed by the general session and keynote lunch, where Rorke Denver, a Navy SEAL, shared his perspectives and lessons learned from the battlefield to help teams and individuals perform at higher levels.
Also at the general session, Mike Roberts and Gary Baker, who co-chair the Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals, and Faye Westfall, who has been involved with STEP-UPP for many years, presented certificates to the graduating STEP-UPP class. And Jessica Granier of Rouses Markets, the valedictorian of the class, received the Faye Westfall Award.
It was also announced that the Vorhees Vision Scholarship will be increased to $10,000 this coming year.
The trade show, which included the new interactive Silent Theater, was held in the afternoon.
At the Chairman's Dinner Dance that evening, Raina Nelson of Westfalia Fruit and outgoing chairman of the board of directors, turned over the gavel to Tim Graas of Associated Wholesale Grocers as chairman, who was joined by Mike Roberts of Harps Food Stores as vice chairman, Kristin Yerecic Scott of Yerecic Label as secretary and Sloan Lott of Bland Farms as treasurer.
Also, Lifetime Membership Awards were presented to two individuals: Larry Narwold, who led the SEPC board of directors from 2002 to 2004, and Barbara Sayles of the Society of St. Andrew.
On Saturday, attendees had the opportunity to participate in either the Founders Memorial Golf Tournament, the Martin Eubanks Sporting Clays Classic or the local tour. The Ultimate Tailgate Experience in the afternoon and evening concluded the event, as always.
"There's no question that we were pretty much astounded at the attendance," David Sherrod, the council's president and CEO, told The Produce News Monday, Sept. 26. "We knew going in that we had a little over 1,100, and I think we ended up with over 1,200 people registered. So there were a lot of walkups, which was great. That's just the industry rebounding, looking for some opportunities, so we were glad that we were able to have this show."
Referring to the new chairman of the SEPC board of directors, Sherrod added, "The platform that we have developed with innovation being a key component is really resonating with the industry. People are looking for new ideas. And this really goes along with what Tim's new platform is about: sustainability and where we're going by the year 2050. So we're excited that we have something new for the industry."
That new platform "is about how we're going to feed the world by the year 2050," said Sherrod. "It's going to take these conferences, these educational sessions," to come up with solutions. With less than 30 years to 2050, "We need to start working on these innovations and technologies to put them in place or we're going to be in trouble if we don't get something done."
Regarding another highlight, Sherrod stated, "By far I think the What's New Silent Theater was a really big hit; it was a fountain of information that was available throughout the whole expo. As the expo was going on, there was speaker after speaker — 12 in all — and they did not disrupt any business that was being done on the floor," thanks to the Silent Theater headphones. "We got so much good feedback."
He also pointed to the "What's New from the Consumer View" educational session by Anne-Marie Roerink as another highlight.
"I really believe that this report had some of the best data available," he said, noting that the report is commissioned by SEPC and is available to all its members. "She brought together the theme of the show: At the Farm, On the Menu, In the Store, For the Planet. Those are our stakeholders. That report was very comprehensive, and there was something in there for everybody."
On the opening reception, Sherrod said, "I was told by so many that they have never seen so many people attend an opening reception like that. People were just glad to be back together."
Looking at the council's two major events, Sherrod said, "You can see a shift that [Southern Innovations] is starting to feel a lot like Southern Exposure in the way that people are getting a return on their investment. When it's all said and done, we all want to do business. We also want to see each other. I think we had a great ratio of buyers to sellers that you couldn't help but do business."
He added, "We're about the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, but it comes down to that buyer and that seller have to come together, and that's what we're all about. People see that in us, and we're going to stay true to that."
And what did those at the event think? The Produce News spoke to a number of people on the expo floor to ask their impressions.
Connor Murphy of Goodness Gardens said, "It's been a really good show so far. We've had quite a lot of interest in our product line. There's a lot of good quality face time with buyers, category managers, other vendors. I find that at these shows, you get to spend more quality time with the people that you need to. There's definitely a lot of traffic, a lot of retailers — and the right retailers."
Charlie Eagle of Southern Specialties said, "This is always a great show. My impression, without knowing the numbers, is that this is probably the best-attended Southern Innovations show that I've enjoyed. The single-biggest improvement is the size of the aisles. Because the aisles are expanded in size, we've been able to have better conversations without crowding. We've been able to maximize our booth space by bringing people into the booth as well as meeting with them just outside the booth and not interrupting the flow of traffic. So I think that's been a great help in making the meetings more successful."
He added, "We've enjoyed conversations with retailers and wholesalers that we haven't done business with in some time, as well as foodservice distributors. We wouldn't be here if the attendees were not good quality — and we've had really good quality. When I think about the mandate of the produce council, the organization goes beyond just having a show. It does good for the over all community with participation in charities, new leadership programs and other efforts to improve the industry."
Sharon Robb of North Bay Produce said, "It's been great. There's a lot of new faces, which is great for networking. We've had a lot of traffic at the booth so far today. It's been very steady. And we're seeing a lot of decision-makers at the retail level. We have been very dedicated to SEPC for over 10 years now. Every year we just see it grow, and it's money well spent for us."
Lucretia Parish of Giorgio Fresh Co. said, "I think everybody is excited to get out. The crowd is back to normal. I think it's gotten bigger every year. We had a little setback, of course, during the pandemic, but we're very happy with the turnout. There's a lot of traffic — a lot of retailers, a lot of wholesalers, a lot of foodservice people."
She added, "I like the venue. We're spread out enough that it's not crowded. And we're all equal with the same size booth. That's what I love about the SEPC. And the keynote speaker was awesome."
Also, "It's a great opportunity to come and see what's new. I think every booth [has] something of a little different twist," whether it's a new flavor or new packaging. "That's why it's called innovation. And I think it's great."
Tim Ross of Duda Farm Fresh Foods said, "I'm looking at as many retailers here as we have at the [Southern Exposure] show." The opening reception "was great," he added. "We did talk to a lot of people there. I told David that we probably need some more space next year because it's super-popular."
He added, "I still believe it's probably the best regional show that we go to throughout the country. The setup here, the new things that they've added — it adds so much more to the show. There are a lot of innovations this year."
Rick Estess of RPE Inc. said, "The support from our retailers, wholesalers and foodservice people has just been outstanding. I've had a lot of traffic. SEPC has widened the aisles so you're able to get more people there without running over people. So I think the layout is just perfect for this show."
He added, "We have two new items that have gotten a lot of good exposure. That's one of the reasons we come here: to show how our company has been innovative in bringing new products and concepts to the show. And they've been well received."
He continued, "A lot of people are real excited about the ratio between retailers and exhibitors. It's a good mix. Now we're looking forward to the Chairman's Dinner Dance this evening — another evening of great fellowship."
The next major event on the SEPC calendar is Southern Exposure, which will take place March 2-4, 2023, in Orlando, FL.