It’s been more than a year since the natural and organic product industry has been able to gather in person for a major trade show, and there’s another half-year to go before the Natural Products Expo East 2021 is set to kick off in September.
For Carlotta Mast, who was recently promoted to a senior vice president position overseeing all operations for Expo West and Expo East organizer New Hope Network, the fall can’t arrive soon enough.
“The community wants to be back together,” Mast said.
September’s Expo East event in Philadelphia will represent the first opportunity for that in-person connection since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out last spring and resulted in the cancellation of the in-person Expo West and Expo East in 2020 and 2021’s Expo West scheduled for this May in Anaheim, California.
“I have felt so much support and positive energy from the community, even though there was disappointment that we cancelled the in-person Expo West,” Mast said. “… It feels good that the community wants to be back and to be part of [future trade shows].”
In the weeks leading up to the 2020 California trade show, international attendees — particularly those from China and other Asian countries — began cancelling, “but we were not hearing of many impacts from U.S.-based companies,” Mast said.
That changed the week Expo West was scheduled to kick off as more and more large firms began implementing travel restrictions for employees.
New Hope held out until the last moment, postponing Expo West just hours before the event was to start amid a #CancelExpo social-media campaign by natural-products companies concerned about the virus. When the event was ultimately cancelled, it marked the first time in 40 years that New Hope did not host an annual natural-products event in Anaheim.
“We’ve had some significant headwinds,” Mast said. “As an events-organizing business, COVID has had an extremely significant impact.”
Despite those impacts, Mast said she has no regrets about the decision to cancel the event.
“I truly believe it was the right decision because that [show] could have become a super-spreader event,” she said. “As painful as it was and as disruptive as it was … having a safe and comfortable environment for our attendees and exhibitors is of utmost importance.”
In lieu of an in-person event, New Hope shifted to a virtual framework called Spark Change, which will be used again for the Expo West show in May.
“A virtual trade show is not the same type of experience, but it comes with a lot of its own benefits,” Mast said. “It’s a great platform delivering content and education, a great platform for connecting people. But we also learned that there is a big learning curve for all of us … and we’re really applying that learning to what we’re going to do in 2021.”
One of the things that New Hope is focusing on for the upcoming show is improving its platform for how retailers discover new products and connect with brands.
“We’re really leaning into how to make product discovery easier,” Mast said. “A main reason retailers and others come to our shows is to see all of the innovative products. … You taste the products and talk to the entrepreneurs — it’s what makes in-person so wonderful for this type of event.”
New Hope’s upgraded virtual product discovery platform allows attendees to search and sort brands to help retailers identify which products “are most interesting or valuable to you,” Mast said. “You can request samples and connect with those companies one-on-one.”
This technology will be available during future in-person events to improve efficiency for attendees and to provide participation opportunities for those unable to attend in person.
The product discovery platform “will only strengthen our shows moving forward,” Mast said. “We don’t think in-person shows are going anywhere, but we believe that this technology can help us reach more people.”
Looking ahead to Expo East in September, Mast said the Philadelphia event will feature some of New Hope’s programming that is usually saved for the much larger Expo West show.
“I feel like this is an opportunity to write a new story for Expo East,” Mast said. “It doesn’t have to always be the smaller show that’s in the shadow of Expo West.”
Mast, a former journalist and natural foods entrepreneur who’s been with New Hope’s parent company Informa PLC for 13 years, takes over the organizational leadership role there following the departure of Fred Linder in December 2020 and the retirement of Scott Owen.
“Scott and Fred took [New Hope founder Doug Greene’s] vision for what the natural and organic industry could be and expanded on it,” Mast said. The industry is a very generous one where people really want to help others. We ascribe to a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ philosophy.”
If the industry as a whole is one characterized by compassion and collaboration, that’s doubly so for companies operating in the Boulder area, for years a proving ground for natural and organic brands.
“Our local natural and organic ecosystem here is so collaborative” and Boulder represents a “microcosm of what we’ve seen grow throughout the entire industry,” Mast said. “… Everybody is willing to take your call, have coffee with you and share knowledge.”
© 2021 BizWest Media LLC