The decision to cancel Natural Products Expo West was not an easy one.
More than 90,000 typically gather in Anaheim, California in March at the annual natural and organic product show to exhibit their products, attend educational sessions and attract buyers. But as coronavirus spread rapidly in the U.S., New Hope Network was left with little choice but to cancel, marking the first time in almost four decades that Expo West hasn't taken place.
"The timing was very unfortunate for everyone,” Carlotta Mast, senior vice president of content and insights at New Hope Network, told Food Dive. "We understand the mix of emotions and reactions that everybody's feeling and we're feeling them ourselves as well. It was a big impact for us financially, as well as you know, we feel the great loss in not having the event for the industry in March as we've been able to have for the last 39 years.”
To try and make up for the cancellation, New Hope is planning to enhance its fall exhibition: Natural Products Expo East. This year, the show will be in a larger convention space in Philadelphia, which Mast said will provide it with the ability to host more brands and add some unique exhibition spaces and programming that really makes it a "must-attend event for the industry."
Deciding to postpone Expo West
Although prior to the conference there were no recommendations by the U.S. government against domestic travel, the coronavirus outbreak was stoking fear in many planning to attend.
The outbreak had been on New Hope’s radar since late January and early February because it has a number of exhibitors who participate in the show from China, where the virus originated. At that point, the organization began reaching out to those who were planning to come from China because there was a travel ban.
However, it wasn’t until the weekend before the conference, set to start on Tuesday, March 3, that U.S.-based companies started to drop out in large numbers, she said. New Hope spent that weekend in close communication with the city of Anaheim and Orange County Health officials, who were still indicating that they were very comfortable with the event going forward.
Mast said the timing of Expo West was challenging because there weren’t state and local restrictions on how many people could gather like there are now.
On Sunday night, New Hope put out a note to the community saying they were still planning to move forward with the event. Mast said they wanted to be transparent and the statement said New Hope anticipated the audience at the show could decrease by 40% to 60%.
"Overall, most people were relieved, but there was certainly a mix of emotions and reactions from frustration to sadness to relief — all of that."
Senior vice president of content and insights, New Hope Network
She said the number of exhibitors and buyers dropping out "really intensified into that Monday." After listening to the community’s concerns, New Hope decided to postpone the conference — one day before it was set to begin.
"Overall, most people were relieved, but there was certainly a mix of emotions and reactions from frustration to sadness to relief — all of that," she said. "It was a fast-moving situation, and it continues to be in the broader context of coronavirus, but we've definitely experienced that entire range of reaction."
There were exhibitors who were already setting up their booths on Monday or arriving in Anaheim when the decision was announced.
An independent advisory council — made up of 20 industry leaders announced on March 13 — held its first call on Monday to help New Hope establish criteria for how to best disperse its $5 million rebate fund for those impacted by the canceled Expo West show. Those funds could help cover some of the costs incurred to travel and stay in Anaheim.
New Hope is in the process of giving refunds for 2020 badge registrations, education upgrades and training and tour registrations. As for booths, those who were scheduled to exhibit or sponsor at Expo West will be offered a full credit for space toward future activity.
"It's really our top priority to help the community navigate the situation as best as possible," Mast said.
Scrapping the show all together
At first, New Hope said it planned to announce a new date for the rescheduled show by mid-April. The group was looking to postpone the event to sometime in the summertime months, but that quickly changed.
On March 13, New Hope announced it would cancel Expo West all together.
In the two weeks between those two announcements, New Hope started looking at venue and date options to reschedule. She said it was difficult because they wanted to be mindful about not conflicting with other industry conferences, while also not pushing it too close to Expo East. As they evaluated an already complicated calendar, the virus continued to spread.
"In that time, the coronavirus situation certainly intensified," Mast said. "And I think it became pretty clear to us that we just don't know how long this is going to last. And so there was some concern about trying to schedule something in May and not being out of the situation in time to successfully hold another large gathering. So, we took that into account."
As a result, New Hope canceled Expo West completely and instead is focusing on enhancing its Expo East show.
"I've been on the phone and in email conversations non-stop over the last two and a half weeks," Mast said. "The community was really voting for us to focus on Expo East rather than try to divide our attention and the industry's attention with a rescheduled Expo West, and then an East Coast show. So once we made that decision, it felt really good."
Many major events across different industries have been canceled in recent weeks as a result of the outbreak. According to The New York Times as of March 19, there were more than 10,000 cases of coronavirus in the U.S. with 149 confirmed deaths.
Health experts are predicting it will continue to the spread in the coming months and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that groups and individuals "cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States" for at least eight weeks.
The decision not to move forward with major events can have a sweeping impact within trade organizations that hold them, both in terms of finances and morale among employees.
Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic, said these events are very time consuming, requiring an organization's communications, marketing and sales teams to spend months promoting the event, lining up and preparing speakers, among countless other activities that often go unnoticed outside the group. Preparation for an event often begins a month or two after the previous conference concludes.
"Obviously, it's all-consuming in many of these organizations," said McBride, who had stints at the American Beverage Association and Grocery Manufacturers Association before founding his business six years ago. "Especially when you get to the homestretch of the last 30 to 60 days, and to put in that kind of effort and then see your work get canceled, you know, it can have an effect on morale."
For trade groups, an event is often a way to celebrate the organization through fun social events and networking, he said. They’re also an important way to raise money used to promote the industry, organization and its members throughout the year.
"Obviously, it's all-consuming in many of these organizations. Especially when you get to the homestretch of the last 30 to 60 days, and to put in that kind of effort and then see your work get canceled, you know, it can have an effect on morale."
Founder, DSM Strategic
In some cases, the money can be a big chunk of the group's operating budget, McBride said, with a large organization deriving up 10% of its annual revenue from a trade show to as much as a third for a smaller firm.
Cathy Breden, executive vice president and COO with the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, said the trade show industry has a $97 billion economic impact on the U.S. economy each year. This includes direct goods and services purchased by exhibitors, attendees, organizers and marketing groups, as well as capital expenditures by venue owners such as hotels, restaurants and taxis.
"The exhibition industry has proven to be resilient in times of crisis," she told Food Dive in an email.
Scaling up Expo East
In previous years, Expo East was held in Baltimore, but this year it will be at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is more than double the size at about 679,000 square feet of exhibit space, with seven exhibit halls. The decision to shift cities, however, was made long before the COVID-19 outbreak. Mast said they had maxed out its available space in Baltimore, so this bigger venue would help attract more people. Historically, Expo East has received significantly less attendance than Expo West. In 2018, Expo East drew roughly 30,000 people.
"We're going to work really diligently to make it the kind of event that a lot of people will want to attend," she said.
Mast said New Hope will be working with every one of its exhibitors and sponsors to creatively apply the credits they will receive from Expo West to Expo East. But she acknowledged that not every exhibitor will be able to make Expo East work for them, so they will be trying to help those people too.
The group plans to add special features to the event this year. For example, Mast said the convention center provides an area to have "an organic community park" on the show floor where it will incorporate exhibitor and education space for greater interactive learning. They are also exploring ways to showcase sustainable packaging so that people can touch, experience and understand the different elements of what goes into it.
The advisory council will also advise New Hope on how to ensure that Expo East can be the most valuable to retailers, buyers and brands.
"Having the additional space to really get some great feedback from this advisory council and other members of our community, we then want to be able to creatively apply that to how we're utilizing that space to create an environment in Philadelphia that would be very unique, very different to maybe what we've been able to do in Baltimore, but even different from what we've been able to do in Anaheim,” she said.
Even six months out, planning an event while there is a pandemic can be unpredictable. Mast said New Hope is paying close attention as the situation is changing every day and will do its best to adjust plans well ahead time if this is still an issue then.
"I think we as humans are just all in that same predicament a little bit because we just don't know what's going to happen," she said. "But that said, we're also not allowing that uncertainty to cripple or hinder our ability to really push forward with good plans. We are hoping that the situation with the coronavirus subsides and the September timing is actually really good for the industry."
Christopher Doering contributed to this report.