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Expo West Coronavirus

Trade show COVID-19 disruptions highlight value of in-person connections

The coronavirus has fueled a halt in myriad trade shows, corporate meetings and social outings, forcing businesses to turn to video conferencing and other virtual interactions.

The postponement of Expo West—what Forbes later wrote is known as the “Super Bowl of natural CPG”—reflected the early disruptions of a global pandemic that by mid-March 2020 had soured the U.S. economy, tanked the stock market and drastically interfered with the daily lives of ordinary Americans and people abroad.

As governments around the world grappled to contain the coronavirus, or COVID-19, scores of industries—including the natural products sector—faced a new reality of social distancing, telecommuting and webinars to replace the old-school, in-person method of building rapport with colleagues, clients and business prospects. For the time being, the epidemic has fueled a halt in myriad trade shows, corporate meetings and social outings.

On March 2, Informa’s New Hope announced its decision to postpone a food extravaganza (Expo West) that drew more than 85,000 people in 2018 from 132 countries. New Hope later revealed Expo West would not be rescheduled for the year. Since then, events around the world have been postponed or scrapped entirely for 2020.

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Roster of select industry events affected by coronavirus

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New Hope is focused on its other flagship event, Expo East, currently scheduled for Sept. 23-26 in Philadelphia. Another Informa-organized trade show, SupplySide East, was postponed until June 22-23 yet will remain at Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, New Jersey. Vitafoods in Switzerland also has been postponed to Sept. 1-3.

All three events are organized by Informa plc, a public company based in London that also publishes Natural Products Insider.

The developments have led some businesses to reflect on the value of large conferences and exhibitions given the costs to exhibit at such events, particularly for startups.

“I remember when I was getting started, how critical it was that we, at a minimum, find a way to cover our costs and get enough business from this show,” billionaire Daniel Lubetzky of KIND, the manufacturer of snack bars, wrote in a LinkedIn post critical of New Hope that Forbes wrote about. “It was a question of survival. It was expensive back then, and the costs of participation have risen dramatically over the years.”

In the March 1 LinkedIn post before New Hope announced plans to postpone its 2020 event, Lubetzky raised concerns that the events company seemed “to be forcing companies to choose between having to lose what to many of them is the largest investment of the year or to face what could turn out to be a potential threat to their health and wellbeing.”

In an open letter that same day, New Hope stated its “primary concern is and will always be the safety of our guests and colleagues.” And in an effort to support emerging brands significantly affected by the Expo West cancellation, New Hope established a $5 million fund and formed an independent advisory council to help establish criteria for how to best allocate the funds.

Some public relations professionals interviewed for this story contend there is no substitute for the in-person connections made during an event like Expo West.

“I’m a strong believer in relationship-building,” said Andy Yorkin, president of BrandHive, a strategy, branding and public relations firm in Salt Lake City, Utah that represents companies in the natural products industry. The best way to build relationships, Yorkin said in an interview, is “in person where you can look someone in the eye and really get to understand them and build that trust.”

For many of BrandHive’s clients, Expo West represents an opportunity to introduce a new product launch to the media. The event also gives BrandHive a chance to showcase its expertise through speaking engagements and garner new business leads by walking the show floor, Yorkin said.

With the number of cases of infected people from COVID-19 rising, and amid quarantine directives adopted by state governments to shut down movie theaters, ski resorts, restaurants and other public venues, employers are sending their staff home to work.

As of mid-March, BrandHive hadn’t shut down its office, though Yorkin said employees should stay home if they aren’t feeling well.

“The nature of our business is so collaborative that it’s hard,” he stated. “We are keeping the office open and trying to limit our meeting time and really doing that social distancing pretty forcibly.”

Bill Bookout, president, board chairman and founding member of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), was already in a Los Angeles hotel when he received word that Expo West had been postponed. Since then, Bookout had to cancel an annual team building-event in Arizona, where he and his employees were planning to raft the Salt River.

As of mid-March, NASC hadn’t yet canceled an annual meeting scheduled for June in St. Louis, Missouri.

Bookout described “in-person face-to-face contact” as “irreplaceable.” 

“I think that’s why people go to trade shows,” he said in an interview.

To state the obvious: Getting together with a colleague or group of acquaintances over a glass of beer, wine or meal is an entirely different experience than a conference call or webinar.

“They’re never the same,” Bookout said, commenting on virtual events versus “those intangible factors that result from personal connections and networking.”

Suzanne Shelton, a seasoned public relations professional in the natural products industry, agreed there is no substitute for personal interactions and the “serendipity” that comes with it, such as being introduced to a new person through a mutual acquaintance.

“If the trade shows went away forever,” Shelton reflected, “that would be a massive loss.”

With the coronavirus disrupting human interactions, businesses including Shelton’s client Alkemist Labs are turning to technology like the video conferencing app Zoom, which she said offer a richer interactive experience than talking on the phone or via email.

“I think it’s a more natural exchange of ideas,” Shelton of The Shelton Group in Chicago said in an interview. “We’re never going to go back to talking on the phone the way we used to.”

Amid COVID-19, the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) has decided to increase its member outreach and try to be more supportive around operational issues related to the pandemic, said Frank Lampe, UNPA’s vice president of communications and industry relations.

UNPA likely plans more video calls, said Lampe, who cited the benefits of seeing people and reading their facial expressions as opposed to just hearing their voices.

“I don’t know if Zoom is a publicly held company, but if they were, I’d be buying stock right now,” Lampe joked in an interview. (Zoom Video Communications Inc., a public company whose shares (ZM) are traded on the NASDAQ, reported FY2020 revenues of $622.7 million, up 88% year-over-year).

UNPA scheduled an annual meeting at Expo West with its members, but since the trade show was canceled, UNPA conducted the meeting last week as a webinar. However, UNPA wasn’t able to host the typical “meet and greet” that follows the members’ meeting at Expo West.

The meet and greet “had been very popular,” Lampe said. "Again, there was the loss of the human interaction and the ability to see people. There’s no way to make that up.”

Shelton expressed hope that companies would be able to attend trade shows when there is a break in the spread of the coronavirus, though it’s unknown when the global pandemic will be contained.

Citing figures from John Hopkins University, CNBC reported on March 16 that the virus had infected at least 180,000 people and killed more than 7,000. That was the same day President Donald Trump said the virus could last into the late summer.

“None of us know what’s going to happen,” Shelton acknowledged.

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