Musings from Natural Products Expo West 2020 – the Expo that Wasn’t

March 10, 2020

Last week was disappointing. Some have used stronger, more dramatic words, but I think many of us walked around in a bit of a fog. Some were on their way to Anaheim when news of the fate of Expo West 2020 was announced and decided to stick it out, scheduling client meetings and gatherings. For myself, I found out while on a plane, and with a bit of help from United, I was able to turn around and come home the next afternoon.

Let me state firmly that this was an absolute no-win situation for Informa/New Hope Network as well as brands and retailers, and on the positive side, a great indication of the power and potential of social media in our current lives. I continue to be amazed by the outpouring of general well-wishing and practical solutions and commitments to get the show activities and launches done another way.

We work with amazing people in an amazing industry. That starts with the committed folks at New Hope, many of whom I worked with not so long ago. Many have expressed disappointment about communications, and especially timing. For those who heard while in the air or upon landing, even a few extra hours could have saved significant headache. To all of those that are indicting the New Hope staff in any way, who are as much the victims of this as anyone, please stop. It’s tough not to take this personally, and the postponement, communication and timing was somewhat directed by corporate decision-making and policy. Most of us have been there; it’s not easy.

Again, this is no win. You can’t just wind down an event overnight that takes over a year to prepare. There are sunk costs for everyone, whether it’s in non-refundable hotel or airfare fees, booth shipping costs, product and marketing costs and more. As we reflect and re-order ourselves, we are seeing numerous proactive and reasonable solutions proliferating including:

  • Virtual Expos
  • Retailer meetings
  • Enhanced media coverage
  • Broker meetings
  • Using technology creatively – streaming etc.
  • Anaheim meetings for those already there

By the way, great summary here on Whole Foods Magazine and TTC’s Comms director Traci put together this list of media and influencers who have offered coverage.

Nothing though replaces the Expo experience; that gathering of the natural products community with all its passion, conviction and entrepreneurial drive. While the official word is ‘postponed’, to many of us the reality is likely ‘cancellation’ as the total Anaheim experience that is Expo will likely not be replicated in a new venue and time slot before summer. Where can you fit whatever portion of the 90,000 Expo attendees would be available to attend, and how do you put on in a few months what normally takes a year to produce

The face to face aspect will hopefully be rekindled in a rescheduled event, but to expect it to be as intense and complete as Expo West is impractical. When it happens, it will be smaller, it will likely be regionally-dependent, and as such has the chance to be intimate and effective for those that do choose to participate. Many will not, as they’re already allocating refunded money elsewhere (Word is that some companies are upping their commitment to Fancy Foods and other events), and negotiating for their out of pocket – budgets are being irrevocably changed, and Q2 planning will be drastically different. As New Hope is already pointing out, there is always Expo East, but as New Hope also has pointed out in the past, the attendees traditionally there are usually not a direct overlap of Expo West, especially of retailers. This year may be a bit different, and I suspect the retail buyer program at Expo East will be ramped up significantly.

There’s an interesting Forbes article circulating and among its premises is the fact that the industry may be questioning the future of its biggest event. The article comments on the effective use of social media as a communications vehicle, the panic felt by many small brands and entrepreneurs, and then went on to comment on the fact that New Hope was now part of the Informa ‘empire’ (stock down 23.5% this year), and the pressure this was creating in an almost monopolistic environment. It quoted a social media piece by Kind Bar Founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky, “We Need to Talk: why KIND won’t be at Expo West, and why the Natural Foods community may need to re-examine our relationship with the organizers.” In his piece, Lubetzky talked about the changing retail environment and the fact that the show may have lost a part of its fundamental premise. The Forbes article did comment on New Hope’s commitment to creating a $5 million fund to support the entrepreneur community, but the reflection on the true value of Expo and its unwieldiness is interesting and merits more thought.

WellandGood also weighed in on the impact of the postponement/cancellation discussing the impact on food trends and products on shelf.

There will likely be longer term implications of this postponement. We are already seeing a re-evaluation of the virtual expo, although with our products so experiential, I’m not sure that will play out entirely well. We will likely see a focus on smaller regional events and perhaps a shift to Natural Products Expo East, in a new city Philadelphia, this fall.

Expo East is the next best chance that a lot of brands have. Many will be rethinking national strategy and many who might have originally targeted a west to east approach may have revised their business plans. Unfortunately, the west to east approach is a proven formula. This will bear watching.

Just how significant the longer term implications are for the natural products industry is obviously unknown. It could be that the ingredients community, already feeling somewhat disenfranchised in Anaheim with the elimination of both Nutracon and Engredea, will be thinking alternatives. This postponement may provide that community with momentum to fuel change in practice and participation.

At this point, I’m going to stop and ask you all what you’re thinking:

  • What if anything will you do the rest of this year differently?
  • What will you do next year?
  • What have you learned?
  • Are we too reliant on Expo West?
  • Anything else to share?


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