Editors Note: This story was written by Carly Fisher.
At a time when it seems like no one can see eye-to-eye on anything, there is one undeniable fact that most can agree on: something needs to change. Industry leaders are hoping that 2021 will be the turnaround after a monumentally tragic year where the lingering effects of COVID-19 changed how business was done and how we communicate with one another in the online and offline worlds. Not only did this impact high-volume in-person trade show events, but also supporting industries such as hospitality, travel, arts, and leisure.
Toronto-based cannabis events and marketing firm, Lift & Co, (OTC: LFCOF) which produces Canada’s largest cannabis expo, recently stunned industry insiders when it declared bankruptcy after laying off employees in March and postponing their annual November event.
With no clear idea of what the future holds, the cannabis event industry is adapting in different ways as the pandemic rolls into its second wave. The Cannabis World Congress and Business Exhibition (CWCB) canceled all in-person events until 2021, hosting a two-day digital conference on November 17 and 18. Even non-cannabis behemoths like SXSW buckled under pressure to create a virtual experience that could live up to the real deal.
MJBizCon, who transformed their trade show into a month-long digital experience leading up to a three-day online conference event December 2-4, featuring keynote speaker John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, now run with the tagline: “The show must go online.”
But can it, really?
As the producer of two of the U.S.’s largest hemp trade shows—NoCo Hemp Expo and Hawaii Hemp Conference—Morris Beagle, president of WAFBA (We Are For Better Alternatives) says that for the time being, yes. But for the long-term, there’s a collective desire to return to the real world.
“With these online events, you don’t have a face-to-face interaction. I think people are getting exhausted with these virtual events,” Beagle says.
Beagle says that the biggest challenge with online events is holding the audience’s attention – a problem for in-person events that only gets magnified when people aren’t sharing the same space. “There are so many distractions in the world right now taking over people’s attention spans. They get an email, a text, a phone call comes in—they’re off. While we’re going to continue to do some virtual stuff until the physical events come back, I think that people are craving normalcy and in-person events, even if that is wearing face masks and being in the same rooms at the time with social distancing.”
Beagle says that WAFBA’s jump into the virtual world was overall a success, but by no means a permanent replacement. Beagle signed with top virtual platform 6ConneX in April for NoCo Earth Week, including a free three-day virtual conference that would create a space for everyone in the industry to gather in the cloud. Beagle says the platform was great for building out booths, collecting data, and hosting a number of events, but doesn’t see this replacing the value of in-person networking as the future of trade shows.
Some leaders have found unique ways to engage attendees in curated offline experiences, such as Peter Gross, Co-Founder of Trailblazers Presents, including a Trailblazers Supperclub and The Blazers Charity Open, a socially-distanced golf tournament that took place on October 16th at the Ojai Valley Inn to support Root & Rebound and The Last Prisoner Project. Guests were required to have pre-arrival tests and wear a mask at all times, with staff conducting on-site temperature checks and limiting golf carts to one person.
“The appetite for online/digital meet-ups we found was quite large, as we hosted Trailblazers Supperclub where the sole purpose was to gather our attendees and let them discuss how they were getting through this crazy time; what strategies they were imploring to keep not only their business going but their personal lives, as well. It was a great success,” Gross says. “Furthermore, we’ve found a way to still gather a small group in a responsible and compliant way. We’re staying positive and while we’re in uncertain times, we’re looking forward to paving the way and keeping our community alive and thriving.”
Aaron Smith, Executive Director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) points out that the cannabis industry is not the only sector suffering from the global pandemic, which is why they’ve pivoted to monthly webinars and caucuses, leading up to their marquee event, the Cannabis Business Summit, which will be hosted in a virtual format on November 10-12, featuring virtual exhibits, interactive activities, 50+ educational sessions, and two keynote speakers.
“The pandemic has made cannabis business events pivot quickly due to local and state regulations imposed to protect public health. Our goal is to provide value and engagement at our events to further education, bringing buyers and sellers together within the cannabis industry,” Smith says. “The recovery will be slow and virtual events are not a replacement for face-to-face experiences. Still, cannabis events by nature are about building rapport, connections that deepen during face-to-face encounters. Cannabis events will outlast the pandemic by creating new ways for audience engagement through full virtual and future hybrid activities.”