ANAHEIM, CALIF. — The show must go on, said New Hope Network, the Boulder, Colo.-based producer of Natural Products Expo West, in an update to the tens of thousands of registered attendees and exhibitors two days ahead of the event.
Concerns related to coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on travel restrictions have left many participants agonizing over whether to attend, particularly when many major retail buyers, service providers and exhibiting companies already have announced plans to pull out of the show.
More than 3,600 companies had planned to exhibit at Natural Products Expo West, held March 3-7 in Anaheim, which typically draws more than 85,000 attendees. As of March 1, the expected attendance was estimated to be 40% to 60% less, according to New Hope, which said it has been working with federal and local government and health agencies and Anaheim authorities to determine how to proceed with the event.
“Despite the decreased attendance, we believe there will still be a robust level of activity throughout the Expo West campus, and we are hearing from exhibiting companies still planning to attend that they are looking forward to connecting with their peers and doing business while in Anaheim,” New Hope wrote in a letter signed by Fred Linder, group president; Scott Owen, executive vice president; and Carlotta Mast, market leader, all with New Hope Network, a business of Informa Markets.
“Additionally, to reflect the difficulties of this situation, we want to provide as much support as possible to our exhibitors who depend so much on the platform that Expo West provides them,” New Hope said. “We are committed to working with those exhibitors who will not have the conversations or make the connections they need to, to find other ways to support them, either through Expo East or other products and platforms. We also recognize the investment our partners and constituents have made and will work to identify options to mitigate costs over the coming weeks.”
By mid-morning on March 2, more than 200 exhibiting companies had announced plans to cancel participation in the show. Entrepreneurs and other industry professionals shared pleas on LinkedIn for New Hope to cancel or postpone the event. Others firmly committed to attending Expo West in spite of the decreased attendance, suggesting companies that had withdrawn may be overreacting to media frenzy surrounding the virus. Several others described the Anaheim Convention Center, located in Orange County, where a state of emergency was declared last week, as a “petri dish,” and pointed to other large gatherings and conferences elsewhere that had been cancelled recently over coronavirus concerns.
“In light of the coronavirus epidemic beginning its spread to the US and the heightened risk the virus currently poses, please cancel Expo West and refund the smaller brands,” wrote Dillon Dandurand, co-founder and chief revenue officer of Brami, a New York-based bean snack company, in an open letter to New Hope Network posted on LinkedIn on March 1. “Nearly every large retailer and CPG has pulled out of the show by this point. And as the retailer and large CPGs can pull out of the show at a low relative cost for their businesses, we, the startup brands, cannot. Expo West represents one of the largest investments we make each year. This puts the startups in a hard place — do we skip the show and forfeit the significant investment we’ve already made putting our businesses at risk? Or do we go and try to get some sort of return on investment? Many are going with the latter. They have sunken everything into their business, and the livelihood of their families depend on it.”
John Foraker, co-founder and chief executive officer of Once Upon a Farm, said 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,” Mr. 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.”
Daniel Lubetzky, founder and executive chairman of Kind Healthy Snacks, also shared his thoughts in an open letter on LinkedIn published March 2.
“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.”
Mr. Lubetzky added he is particularly worried about the impact on startups and small companies who must decide “between having to lose what to many of them is the largest investment of the year or to face what could turn out to be a potential threat to their health and well-being.”
“I remember when I was getting started, how critical it was that we at a minimum find a way to cover our costs and get enough business from this show,” he said. “It was a question of survival. It was expensive back then, and the costs of participation have risen dramatically over the years. I can only imagine how challenging this must be for companies today.”
New Hope Network has shared a list of exhibitor cancellations and updates at https://www.expowest.com/en/venue-travel/health-and-safety.html.