Business

A “Lost Year” for Cannabis Trade Shows

By Dan Mitchell Apr 9, 2020
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Dan Mitchell is a veteran journalist based in Oakland, Calif. He has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribun...
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Dan Mitchell is a veteran journalist based in Oakland, Calif. He has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, Leafly, and many other publications.
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For Melissa Parker, Natural Products Expo West, a gigantic trade show and convention that had been slated for early March in Anaheim, Calif. was going to be the event of the year, and possibly of her company’s lifetime. Parker, the founder and chief executive of CBD oil company Reed’s Remedies, planned to roll out new products and unveil her company’s new business plan: A pivot from selling online and through independent grocery stores to more of a wholesale model. She’d hoped to bag at least a couple of big natural-products chains. “This was going to be our moment,” she said.

It wasn’t. Parker and her husband were leaving the Anaheim Convention Center on March 2 after setting up their booth when she looked at her email. The expo, set to open the next day, had been canceled. The pair headed back inside and spent the next several hours dismantling the booth and packing everything away. 

At about 9:30 that night, they tried to leave, but were locked in. Everyone else had gotten the same email, and had left before the couple had finished. Freed soon enough, they were still stuck with an enormous bill and a 2020 that would be much more challenging than they had thought.

The Expo chose not to reschedule the event, and says it’s working with exhibitors and attendees to make good on their fees in one way or another. Parker said that the whole thing set her company back by about $50,000, and only part of that was fees for the Expo. 

Thousands of companies likely have similar tales, as dozens of cannabis trade shows and conferences large and small have been cancelled or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much of the industry can continue to operate as an “essential” business, albeit with some restrictions.  If they weren’t, the young industry that had been struggling before the virus began to spread, might have been decimated. But the hit to the trade-show ecosystem, a huge force in the pot business, affects both companies that rely on the events to do business, and the trade-show operators themselves.

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Enormous Ripple Effects

When a trade show cancels, it creates enormous ripple effects, said Jessi Rae, chief operating office of CannaGrow Expo, which had a show scheduled for April 17 and 18 at the Marriott Marquis in Chicago. “AV teams, shipping people, decorators, food and beverage staff, temps, etc., all derive income from activities related to our events. And hundreds of companies make new deals at our shows that carry them through their fiscal year. This is as much of an impact to them as it is to us.”

CannaGrow has been rescheduled for November in Palm Springs, Calif.

“For trade shows, 2020 is a lost year,” said Cathy Breden, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. That will likely be the case even if scheduled shows in the late summer and fall manage to go on. Trade show operators “expect lower attendance” for those if they happen at all, she said. The best bet for operators, exhibitors, and attendees, she added, is to “start building contingency plans.” 

Several cannabis shows have done just that. The well-regarded Hall of Flowers show was slated to hold its first Southern California event on April 1 and 2 in Palm Springs. When it became clear the show wasn’t going to happen, the staff got to work building a newsletter product, dubbed Brands of the Week, designed for companies that had been planning to introduce new products at the show. The idea is to connects vendors with potential buyers, and facilitate their interaction. 

Chris Gonzalez, Hall of Flowers’ director of marketing, and a former brand photographer, secured the needed equipment and began taking product photos in his home. The result looks like a high-end online catalog, packed with information about each product, and with everything a potential buyer might want to know about the vendor.

“Nothing can replace in-person communication,” said Delia Flannagan, director of exhibitor operations for Hall of Flowers acknowledged. “Obviously, we rely on that.” Registrations for the event will be honored at the next Hall of Flowers show, which hasn’t yet been scheduled. 

A Hemp/Marijuana Divide

The world’s largest hemp-focused trade show, the NoCo Hemp Expo in Denver, was scheduled for March 26 and 27.  In early March, producer Morris Beegle was watching other events for clues. SXSW, for example, was still saying that its show would go on, but along with many others, it eventually succumbed to reality, and so did Beegle. On March 9, he postponed the show. “We had to give exhibitors a couple of weeks to readjust their schedules,” he said. 

Like Gonzalez, Beegle began exploring ways to create a virtual mini-trade show for exhibitors and attendees. He contracted with a company that enables online conferences and made plans for the Earth Week Virtual Conference and Trade Show, slated to begin on April 22.

It will allow participants to conduct face-to-face meetings, a “virtual mall,” panel sessions, and a learning center. Beegle believes that as a hemp-only event, the show has an advantage over THC oriented shows which which could have legal problems related to interstate trade. “It’s all about hemp, so we’re safer than the marijuana side of the business,” he said. 

Beegle thinks he might make online conferencing permanent, to serve as an adjunct to the NoCo Hemp Expo. “We might have a few thousand companies renting virtual space,” he said. For the March expo, Beegle had been expecting about 20,000 people. 

The next NoCo Hemp Expo is slated for August 6-8. Beegle will again be watching what others do, should the pandemic stretch into the late summer. If sports events come back, for example, so might the trade show. He’s keeping his eye out for one future development in particular: “When Disneyland opens up,” he said, “then America is safe.”

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Dan Mitchell
Business columnist