- Natural Products Expo East, scheduled for Sept. 23-26 in Philadelphia, was canceled late Monday by organizer New Hope Network. The group said many potential participants and stakeholders were concerned they would not feel safe traveling to the conference because of the threat of coronavirus. Organizers said the potential lack of attendees, coupled with organizational changes to promote social distancing and minimize risk led them to make the "difficult decision."
- New Hope Network will be launching a digital events and content series called Spark Change starting in August. The program's intent seems to be facilitating some of the same types of connections that are made in the show's expo hall virtually.
- New Hope Network organizes the two biggest trade shows in the natural and organic CPG space, and both of them have been canceled this year. Natural Products Expo West is an annual behemoth in California, attended by more than 90,000. It was abruptly postponed the day before it was set to begin in March due to the threat of the coronavirus, then canceled less than two weeks later.
Coronavirus has sent many components of the business world reeling, including trade shows. While Expo East and Expo West are both prime places for businesses to give investors, influencers, distributors and buyers a taste of what they are about, the trade show setup also feels like an easy place for coronavirus to spread.
By canceling Expo East now, New Hope Network avoids the same type of debacle it faced when canceling Expo West — as many participants had already traveled to the West Coast and were setting up their booths and preparing for a week of networking and free samples. Set to begin on March 3, Expo West had the bad luck of being scheduled at the same time as the U.S. was first starting to see large numbers of coronavirus cases. It was one of the first big events in the U.S. that was canceled due to the outbreak.
More than three months out from Expo East, there's plenty of time for exhibitors to change plans and not lose money. On the disease front, things are not likely to improve enough for the trade show to work in any conventional way by September. Though coronavirus cases are diminishing in some parts of the United States, the disease is raging in other parts of the world, and Expo East is a show that draws participants from around the globe. Even if U.S. cases continue to fall, epidemiologists have predicted autumn could bring a second wave of the disease. Experts have said there is no true safety until a vaccine is developed.
By launching Spark Change in August, New Hope Network has a way to facilitate some of the connections made on the trade show floor, which is the most important part of the conference for most brands, buyers and investors. New Hope also will have the opportunity to take the best practices from several other industry conferences that have gone virtual and apply them to Spark Change. Considering the importance of the full sensory experience for food and beverage — and the fact the expo hall at food conferences can resemble a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet — building a virtual expo experience for this space is a challenge.
New Hope will be able to pick up some lessons from the Institute of Food Technologists' annual conference, IFT20, which will take place virtually July 12-15. Though the expo hall is just one component of IFT — which is also a huge social and educational event for food scientists, students and innovations in ingredients and processes — conference organizers have emphasized creating a virtual expo hall platform that allows for live video chats, product demos and literature distribution.
It remains to be seen how effective virtual expos are for the companies, buyers, investors, influencers and potential partners who use them to do business. No matter how close the virtual experience is to the real thing, it will be nearly impossible to replicate the sensory aspects and chance meetings in a crowded convention hall online. But it's also uncertain when the pandemic will end and the lasting impact it will have on big events and human behavior. After spending months isolating, it may take some time before people are comfortable in a space with thousands of others and eating samples at a booth.
New Hope Network was smart to cancel Expo East and change its course for the year this early in the game. It will now have opportunities to learn from other groups trying to do the same thing online.