This week was supposed to mark one of the biggest wellness events of 2020. Every year, more than 3,500 health brands and over 85,000 attendees descend upon Anaheim, California for ExpoWest—the world’s largest healthy product convention—to showcase what they’ll have to offer in the coming months. Brands spend thousands of dollars to attend, and for many startups, it’s their major chance to pitch products to retailers. But as of Monday evening, the massive event got postponed indefinitely, after hundreds of brands starting pulling out from the show just two days before it was slated to start.
Why? Organizers and brands hoped to keep those who would be traveling from all over the world safe from COVID-19, and reduce the risk of the illness becoming even more widespread. “Ultimately, we listened to our community, and the position of our community changed very rapidly over 24 hours, due to the COVID-19 situation and its mainstream media and social media coverage,” says Carlotta Mast, the senior vice president of content and market leader for New Hope Network, which hosts the event. “By the afternoon of March 2, it was clear that despite the city of Anaheim being open and operating as usual and the continued assurances from local Anaheim authorities that the city was prepared to host Natural Products Expo West, the majority of our community wanted the show postponed.”
Mast says she recognizes the conflicting emotions many are feeling about the postponement. Many, she says, have reached out saying they are breathing a sigh of relief. “We recognize that, alongside this relief, many community members may be feeling disappointment, frustration, and uncertainty, particularly those individuals and companies that had already traveled to Anaheim and were in the process of setting up for the show,” she says.
But how does the postponement actually affect brands and the consumers that purchase their products? We asked those affected for how they plan to move forward.
A chance for small brands to get their shot
Expo West is…a huge deal for thousands of brands large and small, many of which work all year toward announcing their new products at the show and depend on the journalists attending to tell consumers what they are. It’s also their chance to catch the eye (and mouths) of grocery store buyers. “Expo has the ability to truly change the trajectory of a young company’s life,” says Brenden Schaefer, the founder and CEO of Bright Foods. Last year, he says he left the show with a commitment from grocery retailer Sprouts to stock the brand’s products. “When you’re a small company, every month counts, and postponing the show means we have to figure out alternative ways to grow until the new date is announced.”
Niloo Mirani, the director of marketing for plant-based brand Tolerant Foods, says the postponement news is hitting her team hard. “As a small emerging brand, Expo is one of our biggest initiatives of the year that we put a lot of effort and investment into,” she says. “We go to Expo to try and make connections. We’re trying to grow and this event is the perfect landscape to do that as we can meet with other brands, retailers, and consumers. Not having that opportunity this year is just one reason the postponement weighs heavy on us.” But Mirani adds that the well-being of her team and the show’s attendees are more important, so she ultimately supports the decision.
“As a ‘newer’ kid on the block, we have been working hard to use ExpoWest as our launching pad to unveil our rebrand, the new look and feel to The Collaborative [formally The Coconut Collaborative] and our incredible innovation product line to everyone at the show,” says James Connelly, vice president of sales at The Collaborative. He says that they were planning on publicizing their new plant-based desserts at the show. “We’ve been able to have pre-teaser discussions with retailers, media, vendors, and influencers, but we were ready to make a huge splash at Expo, which will delay our ability to get face-to-face with them until the show is rescheduled. Now, we are switching gears and coming up with exciting, potential virtual ways to launch the rebrand and everything that comes with it.”
Terra Ingredients director Peter Carlson says for his team in-person meetings are especially important because they are the leading supplier of fonio in North America, still a relatively unknown ancient grain from Africa. Besides having three new products to launch, the show is a chance for them to educate. He says now the team is still brainstorming the best way to move forward to raise awareness of the brand’s products and getting them onto store shelves.
How ExpoWest 2020 being postponed is affecting product launches
Again, Expo West is typically a time where brands showcase exciting new products and collaborations, and the exposure can help seal deals with retail partners to get those new products into consumers’ hands. But with this year’s show postponed, brands will have to figure out how else to publicize their new launches. Bright Foods was planning on announcing the launch of a new refrigerated clean protein bar line, which he says will still be launching, but will require more outreach to retailers and publications to get the job done. Core Foods CMO Brett Hartmann says they too planned on launching refrigerated protein bars (theirs also includes caffeine) and says they are also spending the week scheduling meetings and conference calls with people they planned on connecting with at Expo.
Pipcorn co-founder Jen Martin says her brand also had a big new product announcement planned for the show: the launch of their new heirloom crackers. “It’s a huge deal for us because it’s our first move into another aisle and our first product that is made with our upcycled corn and in a fully recyclable box,” she says. “To be in-person and have people try the crackers and understand what went into making them and why it matters is pretty invaluable.” Now, she says her team will spend this week coming up with a whole new plan on how to launch the crackers.
Similarly, Jordann Windschauer-Ameta, the CEO and founder of Base Culture, says ExpoWest 2020 was going to be her brand’s moment to launch reformulated almond butter brownies and cashew butter blondies, both of which now have 40 percent less sugar. She says her team’s plan now is to announce the launch on social media and reach out to retailers directly for virtual meetings.
Blake Waltrip, the US CEO of A2 Milk (a brand known for their A1 protein-free cow’s milk), says they were planning on publicizing the launch of their new coffee creamer at the show, along with a lower sugar chocolate milk, giving grocery store buyers and journalists a first taste. “We have already announced through a press release, but will continue to share with retailers, media and future events,” he says, as to what their game plan is now.
Some brands are going ahead with their rollout as planned, despite no longer having the momentum from Expo to rely on. For Tolerant Foods, Mirani says they planned on announcing the launch of their new organic riced red lentil pilaf at the show. While attendees won’t be able to get a first taste, she says the launch will still go as planned, being available on Amazon in March and in Whole Foods in May.
The event organizers are still determining how they will handle reimbursing the brands for the thousands spent on space to attend the show, but travel costs (which for Bright Foods, Schaefer says fall between $3,000 and $5,000) are a lost cause. “This is a big deal to a lot of smaller brands, who have invested a massive percentage of their marketing dollars in this show, to get their brands in front of the right people in the industry,” says Vita Coco president Mike Kirban. “I hope that the organizers do the right thing in allowing brands to recoup some of their lost funds, so they can look to gain exposure in other ways outside of the show.”
“Most people know that ExpoWest is huge commitment—it’s like the Superbowl for natural and organic products,” No Evil Foods CCO Sadrah Schadel says. “When you’re a smaller brand like [us], that commitment is amplified because it’s also a huge investment. Attending ExpoWest is a significant chunk of our marketing budget for the year, but our team also puts a tremendous amount of time and effort into planning and prepping for the show.”
If not reimbursed, Mirani, of Tolerant Foods, says it may affect their decision to participate in the future. “As of now, ExpoWest and New Hope are not offering refunds. They have announced they will work with exhibitors on future credits. For small brands like us, we will need to evaluate if we are able to participate in another ExpoWest this year,” she says.
Mast, of New Hope Network, says when it comes to financial support, they are still working on a solution, especially focusing on the emerging brands who may be feeling the hit the hardest. “We are working through what this will look like for each of our exhibitors or attendees, and we are committed to listening to our community as we determine next steps,” she says.
Despite the tough news, Schaefer, of Bright Foods, feels the right call was made. “We’ll end up with a better show at a later date—and not be forced into choosing between attending to justify our financial investment versus putting our teams, communities, and ourselves at risk of getting sick,” he says.
Adds Schadel, “I want to commend the folks at New Hope Network for finding a way to postpone the Expo. I’m sure it was an unbelievably tough decision, but I think it’s absolutely the right one for the show and for the industry as a whole.”
Here are the best products Well+Good editors saw at ExpoWest last year. And you’ve seen Well+Good’s 2020 Wellness Trends, right?
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