I have attended, worked, or spoken at 190 cannabis trade shows, expos, or events. While that may sound like a lot, it’s really not when you’ve spent nearly ten years in the industry. My most active year by far was 2018, when I attended 64 industry events. Amid all that traveling, I noticed something striking: A significant shift has taken place in the way marketers and brands reach their target audiences—specifically at trade shows.
The domestic trade-show circuit has changed so much, it prompted me to do a mid-year revision of my entire marketing plan. Any media seller in this space will tell you that’s a rarity for me. Just like my media buys, I plan out the next year’s show calendar in the fourth quarter and stick to it. So what happened this year for me to break my own rule of thumb?
To put the situation into perspective, there are two types of trade shows in this space: those that started within the community and became an industry event, and those that created a show for the industry as it is today. A majority of the most successful consumer-oriented trade shows began within the community, highlighting craft and the culture. Shows like The Emerald Cup, Spannabis, Expo Weed, Hemp Health & Innovation, and Mardigrass are organized by a fantastic group of folks who arose within the community and support it through thick and thin.
The shows that arose outside the community are fading. We’ve seen that trend in established markets, but you know the broader climate is changing when you see lackluster events taking place in emerging markets. Why? Well, it doesn’t take much to sell water on a hot summer day in Texas, but it’s another story when you’re selling water at a natural spring in the Sierras. Yes, it was easy to sell a show during the heady days when sales and consumption were new and revenue was easier to come by, but now that the climate has changed, pulling off a successful event requires more effort.
Heck, some of the hottest shows in my home state are feeling the hurt. This shift isn’t just due to organizers not properly promoting or investing in advertising for their events. Flower’s declining price per pound has a lot to do with it, as does the continued fading of investor money in the sector. Businesses no longer can afford to support every show on the calendar. But there’s still a need for networking. Everyone in Colorado may have all the extraction equipment, insurance, and packaging they need, but there’s still enough happening in technology, politics, and regulation to warrant a business-to-business gathering specifically for Colorado.
While I’m very thankful to be with a company that continues to grow its bottom line and human capital, others aren’t so fortunate. Operators continue to consolidate, lay off staff, and even pull out of emerging markets. Many things likely contributed to these outcomes, but one thing might have helped prevent them: adjusting when necessary, even halfway through an annual plan. That’s what I felt was needed this year.
Being a “sleeves-up” kind of leader, I still get out on both the domestic and international circuits at least once a month. After a recent show in Oklahoma, I said it was time for a change. Even successful companies can’t afford to invest where return on investment is lacking. That’s the case with certain trade shows. Keep in mind return on investment isn’t revenue alone. I measure success by investing only in things that hit the “BAR,” an acronym I coined years back: brand, audience, and revenue. If my investment and effort don’t yield success in one or more of these categories, I should not make the investment. When a show lacks return on building the brand, building the audience, or increasing the revenue… Houston, we have a problem.
Cannabis has become an “evolve or die” kind of space. Be mindful of your marketing dollars now more than ever. Just because something worked “back then” doesn’t mean it will work now. If you’re a struggling retailer, remind yourself at least 18 percent of Americans consume cannabis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means every fifth person you meet could be a customer. If you’re a producer, find ways for your product to stand out from the rest. Now is the time to hammer home how you grow, who grows your product, and where it’s grown. What you grow is no longer as interesting on its own.
Frequently revisit your marketing and business strategies as a whole, because change remains the only constant … and adjusting is the only way to maintain success.
Lance C. Lambert spent years cultivating brands and telling stories in the digital-media and marketing spaces prior to shifting his expertise to the legal cannabis industry in 2013. In 2022, he was named chief marketing officer at Grove Bags, where he’s tasked with growing the company’s footprint at home and abroad. A cancer survivor, he embraces and actively advocates for the plant.