After a two-year hiatus, Expo West, the world’s largest natural food trade show, is scheduled to reconvene this March in Anaheim, CA. Even though face masks will inhibit the usual interactions (elbow bumps likely to replace hugs) and there will be fewer on-premise tastings, the show is still the single best opportunity to gain visibility and opportunities for emerging and established natural food entrepreneurs.
Since this will be my 22nd Expo West, it’s safe to say I’ve learned a few lessons about how to get the most out of shows like this. For many early-stage companies (like Eat the Change), those four days in Anaheim are likely to be one of the largest investments of money and time we will make this year (especially since we’ve all gotten used to limited travel), so it’s important to make it count. Here are some key things to keep in mind:
#1 Your personal energy is critical – Whether you’re standing behind a booth all day or walking the floor, Expo is a physical grind. So
- Optimize your ergonomics. Make sure your shoes are as comfortable as can be – no need to apologize for wearing sneakers.
- Lighten your load as much as possible – a backpack does a better job distributing weight than a shoulder bag.
- Invest in a soft surface to stand on at your booth, and a few barstools for meetings.
- Take advantage of the free morning yoga classes before the show to work out all the stiffness from the previous day.
#2 Everyone is a potential customer – There are tens of thousands of people on the floor but don’t pay too much attention to the badges that might denote retailer, broker, or distributor (despite security checks, they get traded around a lot). Everyone is a potential customer (if not as a retail buyer, then as a retail shopper or even an investor), and everyone should be treated with respect and enthusiasm. By definition, Expo attendees spend a disproportionate amount of time in natural food stores, so even if you’re not presenting to a retail buyer, you’re sampling a consumer that represents the center of the bullseye. Of course, there are always people on the floor that are just in it for the free samples, but rather than try to screen them out, just assume everyone has the potential to unlock new growth for your business, because collectively they do. And personal vibes communicate brand vibes – if you are open and inviting, people will think of you that way. If you are bored, disinterested or can’t be bothered, that’s how they will think of your brand.
- Treat everyone who stops by your booth like they could be your most important account.
- Make sure your follow-up plan is solid before you leave for Anaheim. After the show you’ll have so much to catch up on, and feel hazy about each specific interaction, so make sure your team is prepared to follow-up with samples and cards before you leave.
#3 Emphasize Taste – Even though it’s nice to look someone in the eye instead of over a screen, there’s really only one reason we all gather in person and not virtually - - to taste and feel actual foods (and touch some personal care items). And as I’ve written before, taste is everything when it comes to food. Whether we were launching Honest Kids in 2007, the Beyond Burger in 2016 or Eat the Change’s new carrot-based snacks in 2022 (at booth N2036, North Hall), there’s a huge difference between hearing a pitch and tasting a food.
- Make sure your booth gives people the chance to (safely) taste what you’re selling.
- In addition to live tastings, think about investing in sample size products so people can walk away and have another opportunity to try at their leisure.
#4 There’s no better place to do category and competitor research – if you are a brand owner, you are there to sell product but don’t only spend time in your booth. Visit the booths of potential competitors and look for trends in adjacent categories. Ask yourself how you might be able to apply them to your category. At Honest Tea I first got to sample and enjoy tulsi (an herbal tea in the basil leaf family) from the folks at Organic India and knew it would be a perfect ingredient in a bottled tea.
- Make sure to leave time to stroll the aisles and taste all kinds of new products.
#5 Everyone is a potential ally, employee, or partner – while exhibitors are interested in making sales, lots of other people are interested in landing jobs or making connections. Use Expo West to identify potential sampling or marketing partners. If you are selling buns, you’ll want to connect with someone selling burgers so you can coordinate sampling events together.
- If you have a job opening, feel free to advertise it at your booth – you’re never going to have so many qualified candidates in one (very large) room.
- If you leave Expo West with a bunch of orders but haven’t identified new partners and found some new friends, you’ve wasted part of the opportunity.
#6 Everyone is a potential competitor – At one of Honest Tea’s early shows, a newly-hired employee told a booth visitor that (unlike Honest Tea) one of our competitors didn’t use real tea leaves. Within minutes, the CEO of that competitor came up to me and chewed me out for having our employees say negative things about his brand, and then he threatened to bury Honest Tea. To quote one of my favorite Honest Tea bottle cap quotes, “He who throws mud, only loses ground,” and if a company competes with you on the shelf, they probably share a lot of your aspirations, so respect all and fear none.
- Make sure your team is fully trained to talk about your brand and competitors. People at Expo ask very detailed questions, including about where ingredients are grown, so make sure your team is ready.
We’ve all missed the chance to connect with the extended natural foods community – it’s an amazing ecosystem of people who share a vision of how to nourish our bodies and our planet in a better way. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there and know there will be lots of smiles, even if they are mostly hidden under masks.