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TAMPA, FL –It’s a sunny Friday morning here, just weeks away from the opening of the Southeast Produce Council 2018 Southern Exposure Tradeshow and Expo. The waters of Tampa Bay sparkle beyond the glass of the Tampa Convention Center, site of this year’s show.

It’s quiet now – a far cry from the guaranteed hubbub March 1-3 when some 2500 SEPC members and guests will pack the hall for the industry’s most successful regional tradeshow. Work has been going on non-stop around-the-calendar putting Southern Exposure together; now there’s even more to be done in the next few weeks.

It’s not just SEPC doing the non-stop planning. It’s also exhibitors – and of course the Convention Center staff, who play host to 300 events a year in three exhibit halls, four ballrooms and 36 meeting rooms.

This morning, just a handful of visitors wander through the TCC’s vast spaces. One of those is Amanda Keefer, director of marketing communications for Produce for Kids. PFK holds an annual reception at Southern Exposure to say thanks to retailers and growers who participate in the organization’s programs to promote healthy eating and support charitable causes.

Keefer is here to select the site and wrap up details for that event, which will have 150 attendees or more. She’s in the convention center’s rotunda, an open atrium with a spectacular view of the Bay waters and Davis Islands on the other side. Three convention center pros are making the rounds with her.

She peppers them with questions as spots are considered. The rotunda is looking good. Easy access for invitees and other guests. TCC Director of Catering Doug Horn points out the standing bar just off to the side, making drink service simple. He also explains how the area could be configured for hors d’oeuvres. Convention Services Manager Juan Lopez explains how furnishings could be arranged to accommodate guests.

Keefer looks at a couple of other spots but keeps coming back to the rotunda. Decision made.

Amanda Keefer in the TCC rotunda with Director of Event Technologies Shawn Bier (Photo by Chip Carter)

“This spot will be great,” she says.

Later, she talked about the process of planning for Southern Exposure – for PFK and for the event in general.  

“As an attendee of Southern Exposure, it’s hard to really comprehend the work, planning, logistics and time that go into making it all come together, the Council just makes it look seamless,” Keefer says. “For us, this is a big year for Produce for Kids as we ‘Squash Hunger’ – that’s our new campaign. It’s just a small part of the bigger Southern Exposure picture, but there’s still a lot of planning that takes place, from recipes to AV to having enough high top tables and beverages to go around.

“We were hesitant about the space available for our reception. After meeting with the team in Tampa, I feel 100 percent confident in the space and the support of the Convention Center. That team was an event planner’s dream team. They are extremely knowledgeable about the facility and what has worked or not worked in the past.”

A Never-Ending Process

That’s one tiny slice of the planning and forethought on the part of exhibitors/participants and the council itself that goes into putting on a gathering like Southern Exposure.

In fact, that’s a process that never ends, according to Andrew Scott, a past SEPC president who now takes part in the planning as member of the Board of Governors. Speakers and entertainers are booked within months of the show by SEPC Executive Director David Sherrod, but selecting a site like the TCC and a half dozen hotels to house all guests is a process that has to begin three or four years ahead of time.

The Tampa Marriott Waterside is a familiar  destination for Southern Exposure attendees (Photo by Chip Carter)

“It’s something you’re always thinking about,” Scott says. “You have to book these large places three and four years down the road. And then try and lock in room rates at today’s rate instead of what it might be three years from now – that’s a neat trick, you want to do that. Then you have to consider golf courses – you’ve got to accommodate 288 golfers. And we’ve got another 40 on the waiting list, it’s nuts.”

The first Southern Exposure years ago fit comfortably in the Lakeland (FL) Civic Center. It was simply too small for a location like TCC to deal with.  Now Southern Exposure has become so popular there will be six hotels (all centrally located) to host expo attendees and guests.

“We like to have everything confined into one area so you don’t have to rent a car and you can walk. As we get bigger, not so much in booth size but with quality people walking the floor, you’re looking at several thousand room nights,” Scott says. “The Friday night gala won’t fit in the Marriott any more so we’re having everything at the Convention Center, which can handle our size. We like Tampa a lot.”

The Convention Center staff contributes to that. The crew is used to dealing with spectacle and they’re ready for the Southern Exposure crowd.

Convention Center Staff Has Seen It All

“For a show like this our building and our staff is quite accustomed to working with crowds of that size, and everything is scalable, it just requires more meetings, more planning, a little further out planning, inventories of equipment so you don’t get caught short,” Horn says.

On this particular Friday, the staff is getting ready for a weekend where it will host a college graduation, Tampa Bay’s legendary Gasparilla festival that draws a half-million people downtown – “It’s our Mardi Gras and Super Bowl all in one,” Lopez says — and the NHL All-Star game and related activities.

“There’s a lot of planning and a lot of behind the scenes work that I don’t think people realize or experience,” Lopez says, “so it is neat from our end to have that experience of the behind the scenes process so people can enjoy the final product. Everything from our setup crew, our housekeeping crew, audio-visual, catering, IT, even our finance people and contractual people working behind the scenes – we have an on-site UPS store that handles all the shipping – we’ve got security everywhere. There are so many facets that come together as one to make an event shine and make our building shine and make our city shine. We’re very excited about what we have in store.”

Lopez has been on the job more than 20 years and had some amazing experiences – the 2012 Republican National Convention, last year’s college football national championship, the first-ever Bollywood film awards held in the U.S., and annual ComicCon conventions that draw as many as 50,000 people.

“Every event is unique in its own way. Every event has similarities. We treat all our customers, our guests the same,” Lopez says, adding with a laugh, “A guest comes and experiences the event and leaves and doesn’t ever see any of the mess behind the scenes.”

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