Is the Cannabis B2B Trade Show Model Broken? Can It Be Fixed?

group of trade show attendees walking through the show floor
r.classen / Shutterstock

Somewhere between the onslaught of COVID-19 and the looming threat of recession in 2022, the allure of business-to-business trade shows dimmed. Hard-hit by pandemic lockdowns, most shows limped through almost two years of inactivity before cautiously returning in late 2021. Even then, they were shadows of their former selves, with reduced exhibitor numbers and traffic. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research reported B2B events in the first quarter of 2022 attracted only 62 percent of the participation they enjoyed in 2019.

Participation is not suffering because of health concerns. Instead, marketers who attend dozens of shows and exhibitions annually complain events have lost their focus. In trying to provide something for everyone across all industry sectors, they end up providing little of what participants actually want: legitimate business connections and sales leads at an affordable price.

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Consequently, after a two-year global hiatus, entities of all sizes are questioning whether the return on B2B event participation is worth the investment. Companies still want face-to-face interaction, but they are unconvinced the traditional model best serves their needs.

Darren Roberts believes there is a solution. “There is tremendous strength in numbers, especially when people come together to solve a common challenge,” said the president of Inc Media, a publishing and information-services company focused on connecting people, building brands, and advancing businesses operating within the legal cannabis industry. “Sometimes it takes situations like we’re experiencing now to get people working together to take control.”

By leveraging Inc Media’s award-winning platforms — including the influential trade journal mg Magazine — Roberts has worked in collaboration with cannabis industry stakeholders to devise an affordable, sustainable alternative model.

Roberts knows B2B events and is accustomed to challenging markets. He previously served seventeen years as chief executive officer for AVN Media Network. During his tenure, the organization was the leading global events and media company serving several specialty markets in the United States, Europe, and Asia. That experience was instrumental in shaping Inc Media’s strategy, allowing the company to understand and address the needs of manufacturers and retailers in the cannabis industry during a period of meteoric growth and development.

He shared his motivation, the strategy, and his views on the enduring B2B trade-show challenges.

What is your vision for creating a new event?

We aren’t technically creating anything. Instead, we’re acting as a catalyst for a cooperative effort to find solutions. The cannabis industry is not exempt from the market conditions present in almost every other industry. These are not easy times, but there has always been great power in numbers. When times are difficult, people work together. We are fortunate to have an existing platform infrastructure, the experience, and the relationships necessary to facilitate this effort. Once you have this sort of momentum, the rest falls into place.

How will this event be different from other cannabis-related events?

To me, the cannabis industry is synonymous with change and innovation. Today’s market has become saturated with so many new brands offering an enormous array of products and services. For retail buyers to make informed decisions, they must fully experience the product; they want to see it, hold it, smell it, and in some cases try it.

As the industry has grown, consumers have become more knowledgeable, and the retail buyers must be prepared to meet the ever-changing demands of their customers. With nineteen states having legalized recreational use, buyers cannot merely depend on an annual national show, or even regional events, as a way to keep their shelves stocked. Sending sales representatives into the field is costly for manufacturers and not an efficient use of time for anyone.

The cannabis marketplace is dependent on convenient, sustainable, and affordable solutions to overcome these challenges. This multi-regional event concept achieves this by offering buyers the opportunity to get an overview of the entire market in just a few days in a highly personalized, focused manner that is both efficient and affordable.

What makes this event model sustainable?

It’s imperative that all trade events remain relevant to the markets they serve. In cannabis, we continue to see rapid changes in both product offerings and purchasing patterns. The available event platforms are not agile, nor do their business models effectively serve a high-growth, heavily regulated market. In my opinion, some of the smaller event producers in regional markets accomplish this better than others, but they all fail in meeting universal market demands.

Having now served the industry for seven years, Inc Media has formed close relationships with virtually all the leading manufacturers and retail operators. To effectively serve our market, we must remain connected and informed at all times. This initiative is simply an extension of what we are already doing.

Elaborate on that. How is this different from what has come before?

Due to the many restrictions that exist, marketing cannabis products or any related service is challenging. Industry events are an obvious outlet for assisting in sales and marketing efforts; however, they come at a heavy cost. Shows like MJBizCon operate a traditional convention-hall model. In October, that show hosted more than 1,200 exhibitors who paid an average of $40,000 to exhibit, and more than 27,000 attendees paid between $300 and $1,000 to attend.

I know this model very well and have had extensive experience in producing events that are almost identical in shape and size to this one. As anyone can imagine, these events can be highly profitable for the operators, and this is precisely why Emerald Events shelled out $120 million to acquire this business.

I don’t believe any of the businesses that support trade shows have a problem with an event being profitable, so long as it effectively meets their needs. The real problem with these existing structures is that most are for-profit enterprises with one goal: to generate profit. But to properly serve an entire industry, all goals must be aligned. This is where the problem lies. There’s a disconnect between the event’s goals and the market’s goals. This effort is focused on creating viable solutions to correct this. I feel that great progress has been made in just the past few months, and now there is momentum.

What role does Inc Media play in the project?

The industry must utilize all available resources. We offer channels for communication, and our organization has earned the trust and confidence of the market, which is a crucial element. Trust is a valuable asset; combine it with a shared vision and great things happen.

We also have the hands-on experience necessary to execute the strategy. For now, Inc Media is a catalyst for communication, and our organization is committed to serving in any capacity the industry deems necessary. There is an energy and dynamic that exists within the cannabis space that is very powerful and motivating, and we are grateful to have been included.

Do we have all the answers today? The answer is no. But as we open channels for communication it drives collaboration, and together we will create solutions.

The first collaborative retail-focused event will take place July 11 and 12 in Los Angeles.

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