Having worked the cannabis trade show circuit for several years now, I have excellent insight into marketing via the frontline. At the height of my time on the road, I spoke at or attended forty-six expos, events, and shows around the world. My team as a whole worked sixty-eight events total in one year. MardiGrass in Australia, Spannabis in Spain, Expoweed in Chile, Lift & Co. in Canada, and CannaTech in Israel were just a handful of several on the roster that year. You know you travel too much when you keep several currencies in your safe. I vividly remember adding up the miles to more than 120,000 in the air. I was building a brand one conversation at a time. The money was good, but ultimately it was a sacrifice that paid handsomely for my then-employer.
The true heydays for the circuit were the mid- to late-2010s. Investor money was still being thrown about, and valuations for limited partnerships rivaled those only seen in the dotcom days. It really was a unique time to be in the legal industry.
I share this history because the landscape has changed, thanks to a virus that took our world by storm. I still recall speaking to friends in my network who were based in China. Little was known at the time, but all of a sudden friends from Southern Europe were sharing the rapid spread in their part of the world. Those who planned to attend Spannabis that year likely have some stories. Thankfully, I backed out of attending that show after hearing what friends in Spain were sharing. Other friends made the trip out early to enjoy the Mediterranean, only to end up stranded in the country for weeks post-lockdown.
Here we are now in 2022, and the circuit slowly is returning. My first domestic show post-outbreak was CannaCon in Oklahoma City in 2021. For the circuit regulars, the show felt like a family reunion. I distinctly recall catching up with the Futurola crew, the Emerald Harvest gang, and the Humboldt Seed family. Everyone was so happy to be back out and among friends, but a lot had changed for many of us veterans of the trade-show scene. Many friends shifted their business models or changed employers. As more shows hit the roster, it became evident the days of working almost weekly shows were a thing of the past.
My first international show of 2021 was Lift & Co. in Toronto. Traditionally, this was the show for the Canadian market. Every major licensed producer (LP) always attended, along with the top ancillary brands from soil and supplements to lighting, packaging, and insurance. Our industry traditionally packed the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Not in 2021. Gone were the LPs, forced to answer the call of investors now questioning their crazy valuations. The exhibit-floor traffic itself was a fraction of that seen in years past, and not just because the expo fell right before American Thanksgiving. Concerns about COVID remained fresh in everyone’s mind, and this was before the Omicron variant wave hit.
A comeback I really had high hopes for in 2021 was the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). Having relocated from San Jose, California, to the Moscone Center in the heart of San Francisco, the show took place where the modern medical cannabis movement began. The event literally occurred just weeks after the twenty-fifth anniversary of Proposition 215, also known as California’s Compassionate Use Act — the first medical legalization in the United States. The year also marked the thirtieth anniversary of Proposition P, San Francisco’s forward-thinking ballot measure to legalize medical cannabis six years before the rest of the state came around. Taking place a week before Christmas just as Omicron entered the picture, the NCIA show also fell way short of the powerhouse event it traditionally has been.
With the exception of Spannabis, one of the biggest shows on the international stage, most trade shows have seen a dramatic decrease in both audience and exhibitor participation. A friend in Ontario, Canada, made a valid point during one of our recent monthly “state of the industry” calls. “Look how well most of us did without trade shows over the past two years,” he said. “Are they really as much of a necessity today as they were then?”
My answer is yes and no. Events and trade shows, whether they are white-collar expos or Cannabis Cups and “protestivals,” always will have a place in this space. Shows are major ways to fast-track your product or brand in front of a captive audience. That said, events now must be more relevant and rewarding than ever before for everyone involved. They can’t just be flashy hipster gatherings full of influencers and celebrities looking for their next clichéd Instagram shot. Rather, they must be well-curated events with the perfect balance of buyers and sellers, because — beyond education and insight into the latest innovations — that’s ultimately what most attendees and exhibitors want.
It is imperative we get back to the roots of why such events came about in the first place: education and legitimate business connections. Greeting old friends and celebrating at parties isn’t enough. Attendees and exhibitors alike want something to show for their investment beyond fatigue and in their bones and their budgets. No matter how iconic, shows that don’t provide demonstrable value won’t last.
Lance C. Lambert spent years cultivating brands and telling stories in the mainstream digital media and marketing space prior to making the jump to the legal cannabis industry in late 2013. In 2022, he was named chief marketing officer at Gove Bags, where he’s tasked with growing the company’s footprint at home and in emerging markets around the globe.