A Crash Course in Education’s Role at Cannabis Trade Shows

Aaron Smith at one of NCIA's cannabis trade shows
Aaron-Smith addresses an NCIA conference. (Photo: Mike Rosati)

Success is not realized by the efforts of a single person. Olympic athletes glean tips from their coaches, engineers study the work of their predecessors, and artists take inspiration from past visionaries. No matter the industry or practice, people need mentors and resources in order to hone their abilities and define their strategies.

The same idea applies to the cannabis industry, where everyone is still learning as they go. That includes legislators, who are faced with novel challenges in crafting fair and supportive regulations with limited national experience to guide them.


One of the many roles of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) is to provide a welcoming and productive environment for all industry stakeholders to connect and learn from one another. One of the ways the organization accomplishes the goal is by hosting cannabis trade shows, which are not just about renting a venue, passing out invites, and letting the crowd mingle. For a truly impactful educational conference that leaves attendees with actionable insights they can apply to their own business, offering effective sessions and engaging the audience are imperative

How is that accomplished, exactly? It’s not as straightforward as you might think.

Collect feedback

First and foremost, conferences must be tailored to specific audiences. Similarly to how brands ask for customer feedback about products, smart conference producers solicit programming preferences from their attendees to ensure they are building timely and relevant agendas.

One simple way to gather information is to conduct surveys following an event. Questions might ask attendees what they thought was missing from the programming and what they would like to learn next. Their responses will help conference producers better tailor future agendas to what people seek, ensuring the same attendees will show up at the next event.

Of course, industry conversations don’t have to stop after a conference ends. Monthly or quarterly webinars can provide an ongoing source of information, especially within niche sectors. Encouraging viewers to chat, ask questions, and answer a brief survey following a broadcast may provide up-to-date information about the most pressing concerns and issues faced by businesses.

It’s crucial to listen to the target audience when building an event so the program will answer their most pertinent questions. Seeking input in advance removes the guesswork and provides concrete data for planning.

Seminars and networking

Educational conferences are meant to teach every participant new tricks. That means sessions must touch upon foundational topics as well as emerging trends. Every single agenda should cover the most basic topics when it comes to operating in the cannabis space. All first-time entrepreneurs have a lot to learn, from accounting best practices to accessing financial services to compliance tactics and consumer demographics. Often, the key to long-term success hinges on having a comprehensive understanding of operational nuances.

Foundational topics are always relevant, especially within the fast-changing cannabis industry. These subjects are a recurring problem for a majority of NCIA’s members, many of whom are seasoned professionals. Just because they aren’t high-level subjects doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

The other side of the coin is emerging trends, which are critical to help business owners and regulators adapt to this maturing space. Regulations constantly change, and new markets come online every few months. Business owners need to keep abreast of what’s coming down the line so they can make proactive decisions about their growth strategies.

Panels featuring real-world case studies or testimonials are often the most in-demand at cannabis trade shows, engaging, and impactful sessions. While audiences are always eager to learn from success stories, openly discussing mistakes and perceived failures can be even more informative for aspiring business owners. Providing balanced and comprehensive viewpoints can prevent entrepreneurs from repeating the mistakes of their predecessors and help everyone in the industry navigate an increasingly complex space.

Some of the most powerful sessions feature panelists with existing professional relationships. One of NCIA’s previous panels invited speakers from BDSA and Wana Brands to explain how to interpret consumer data to increase sales and improve business blueprints. Since they worked together previously, they were able to present case studies and actual experiences from their successful partnership. Sessions like these provide practical business advice and are incredibly valuable to attendees seeking battle-tested guidance.

It’s vital for all to hear firsthand from industry veterans who have been through the peaks and valleys of their careers. Events should bring together industry veterans, thought leaders, regulators, politicians, and other professionals working within and outside the industry; a robust program includes a perspective from every sector. Sometimes ideas can clash, but it’s important for people to see the point of view from where another leader stands.

This is true not just in building robust programming for cannabis trade shows, but also facilitating networking and establishing business-to-business relationships. Attendees might meet a future client or an ancillary company that could streamline their supply chain down the line. Business owners get the chance to see regulators as real humans rather than an anonymous regulatory body, and regulators have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with business owners about current industry challenges.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

In the rapidly maturing cannabis space, curating panels with diverse representation is especially important. Minority business owners, in particular, as well as women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, have encountered significantly more hurdles to breaking into the industry than other entrepreneurs. It’s essential for their unique challenges and experiences to be heard and recognized by those who wield the most decision-making power in the industry.

Speaker diversity extends into geographical location as well. Without federal legislation in place, every single U.S. cannabis market is beholden to distinct regulations, demographics, and social attitudes. Newer markets, particularly regulators from these states, can gain an abundance of insight from the experiences of leaders in more mature markets.

Ultimately, organizers of cannabis trade shows have a responsibility to empower attendees to share their expertise. Each event must cultivate a collaborative and encouraging culture in order to leave audiences feeling fulfilled.

It’s no secret cannabis isn’t an easy landscape to navigate. The onus now is on more seasoned stakeholders to share their roadmaps to success with new entrants. Robust educational sessions at conferences can help us build that map, especially when they are designed with inclusion and functionality in mind. 

Brooke Gilbert NCIA

Brooke Gilbert is the director of events and education at the National Cannabis Industry Association, where she develops the organization’s event calendar and educational programming in addition to managing more than fifty networking, advocacy, and educational events annually. Prior to joining NCIA, she served as outreach and events coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, where she facilitated the organization’s first national conference, the National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference, in 2012.