Virus Fears Derail Expo West

/ / Businesss, Consumer

Staff at TFA were getting ready to head to Anaheim for Natural Products Expo West, the enormous spring trade show, when, Monday night, the show’s producers announced it would be postponed because of mounting concerns about the coronavirus. New Hope Network, a division of Informa PLC, said they plan to announce by mid-April a new date for the conference.

In a statement on their website, New Hope wrote that the “natural products community has made it clear it doesn’t want the show to go on.” Reports indicated attendance — forecast to approach 85,000 at Expo West, the largest natural products show in the world —  would be down by up to 60% this year. It’s been reported that more than 200 exhibitors had pulled out of the show over the last few days.

Multiple members of the TFA advisory board traveled to Anaheim this week for Expo West.

“I was surprised they postponed considering how much money this makes for them.  But it makes sense,” says Kheedim Oh, founder of Mama O’s Kimchi. “I assumed it would still be on after finding out many buyers were pulling out because I doubted they would cancel.”

Oh estimates he lost $3,000 on Expo West. Though he was able to get a last-minute refund from his Airbnb host, flights, car rentals and shipping of product were all non-refundable.

Matt Reynolds, brand manager for Bubbies Fine Foods and Cook’s All Natural Pantry, said it’s not just money lost, but time, too. Expos are resource intensive. And “it’s hard to quantify that lost lead that could’ve been a game changer.”

“This Expo’s postponement seems to be somewhat unprecedented and is still unfolding on all sides,” Reynolds says. “Expos can be great for sales leads, vendor leads, as well as for customer and broker feedback and face time. Expos can also great for identifying trends and featuring new products. At best, postponing Expo West postpones these opportunities. At worst, we lose them.”

Fred Linder, Group President of New Hope Network, said: “As with all our events, it was the intention here at Expo West in Anaheim, to follow official guidance from local authorities and to listen to the voices of the community we serve and support, in order to maximize the health of the industry.”

“Today, it is clear the majority of those voices are saying they want Expo West but not this week. And so we are being guided by that majority in postponing the show.”

The statement continues that New Hope was planning to continue with the conference this week, at the advice of local government and health authorities from the City of Anaheim. Many brands were already setting up booths on the various trade show floors Monday.

But, notes New Hope Network: “In the particular case of New Hope’s Natural Products Expo, the situation has been very different in that the show was in-flight, with production underway, when the views of the community started to diverge. Some of our partners strongly advocated continuing with the show as planned. Some of our partners wanted the show, but not now, and some just wanted a straight-forward cancellation.”

“It is now clear…that the majority of our Community want the show, but they do not want it now.”

Last week, New Hope Network sent an “Update on Coronavirus” to attendees that the show would continue. They said: “The majority of our Chinese exhibitors are unable to participate in this year’s event and a small number of companies are reducing their presence due to corporate travel policies.”

Over the last few days, though, many brand leaders and industry professionals shared please on social media for the conference to be cancelled. Food Business News said, out of 3,600 exhibitors, 200 pulled out of the conference because of fears of the virus spreading or company travel restrictions.

John Foraker, co-founder and chief executive officer of Once Upon a Farm, told Food Business News that attending Expo West “makes no business sense” as retail buyers from such companies as Amazon, Kroger, Whole Foods Market and Target have cancelled attendance.

“The retailer cancellations have been so significant for us that there is little point to go,” Foraker said. “That combined with no less reason to be concerned about the (COVID-19) health risks for employees given news this weekend. The point of Expo is to sell and build our brand. We think that is not possible now, certainly relative to all the other considerations.”

There were an estimated 85,000 attendees at this year’s Expo West, and sampling food from different brands is a major part of the trade floor experience. Daniel Lubetzky, founder and executive chairman of Kind Healthy Snacks, posted an open letter on LinkedIn as to why his company would be pulling out of the conference:

“While we are hoping that (COVID-19) will not be as damaging as the fear it is fomenting, we decided that gathering with 30,000 people from across the world inside closed quarters to try tons of food samples was probably not the most prudent path forward this week, particularly as we don’t have enough information about (COVID-19). Our team members’ health is our paramount priority.”

Sagan Schultz, CEO at plant-based functional beverage brand WellWell, shared his views as a medical doctor in an open letter on LinkedIn:

“Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 has started behaving like the once-in-a-century pandemic academics have feared,” wrote Schultz, who is also a doctor. “It has the ability to kill healthy adults at a 1-2% case fatality rate making it similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu, and it has proven to spread quite efficiently and exponentially — each infected person on average can infect 2-3 others. So far COVID-19 has caused 10x more cases than SARS in a quarter of the time.”