The Invasion of Plant Matter at Natural Products Expo West 2017

Something strange happened at Natural Products Expo West this year. It was everywhere, from the ground up to the walls. It was antithetical to processed foods, synthetic vitamins, and plastic. It was whole. It was green. It was living.

I’m talking about the appearance of the living plant in its many forms on the show floor. Seedlings. Flowers growing in soil. Living walls of greenery.

And here’s the funny thing — there was no “2017: Plants Are In” conspiracy prior to Expo. It was a classic case of synchronicity. For some reason companies decided to bring something living to their booths on their own, and they only knew others had similar plans when they arrived at the Expo show floor.

And why should we care about this? I’ve written in the past how plants enthuse us, that their value is not always about nutrition but is equally about energetics. Beautiful flowers, plant seedlings being watered in an artificial landscape, walls that live — all this brings a degree of enthusiasm to those of us experiencing it. It reminds us that we are in the natural products industry. It makes us happy.

I witnessed this several times at the Herb Pharm booth which featured a full greenhouse. Here, attendees gently brushed their hands against the leaves of seedlings, smiling and remarking on how nice they felt. It was a respite from the aisles of products, exclamatory messaging, barkers, rock and roll bands, and din of tens of thousands of conversations.  It was an expression of the true power of nature.

Same Old, Same Old

There is no question that Natural Products Expo West has expanded dramatically over the past few years. Each year seems bigger than the one before, and filled with more energy. While that this year’s Expo broke records again, with over 80,000 attendees, I got a sense that the show has hit a plateau. The energy was not as intense, and I was trying to determine if it was me or the show that had a “same old, same old” feeling to it.

Examples of this were the party events that occur right after the show floor closes. I went to one which is centered on a good cause. People go there to mingle and network, but the prime reason used to be to celebrate the cause. There seemed to be fewer people there, and when the time came for the speeches, more than half the people ignored them. This is in contrast to the same event in past years when everyone was highly attentive. It feels a little like people are getting into a routine of what to do and where to go. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to watch out for.

To Be or Not to Be

Several significant companies did not show at Expo West this year. That in and of itself is not news, but it made me think about the value of this show to a brand. If you are an established brand, why do you come (beyond the “because we always have” rationale), and why do you decide not to come? Some of the no-shows were really large companies. I can only guess why they did not attend, but I’d be willing to bet it had something to do with ROI. Maybe they wanted to see if their non-participation would change anything. Maybe they found another way to use the $100,000+ trade show expense: consumer marketing? Research? New product development?

Then there were the no-shows that have not been for a couple years. Will retailers and industry insiders start feeling these brands are not as major or influential as they once were, and will that impact their sales for the year? I’m thinking about those brands that have a long history in the industry (pioneers, if you will) who are not as relevant as they once were. Is it smart to only view the show in terms of ROI, when in actuality, Expo West is a platform from which to make a statementand to demonstrate your relevancy?

It was clear from several exhibitors that the costs of booth space are jumping at a high rate — I heard about an island space that went for $25,000 this year that is increasing to about $45,000 next year. And that’s just the floor space.

Complaining about costs is not a new issue, but it begs the question: If you have the budget to book the space, create the trade show booth, fly in and out, and lodge and feed all of your team for four to six days, is there a better way to spend that money for one year?

Would it make sense to invest a portion of those funds on determining who your consumer is, who your key segments are, instead of saying “Hi” to the same retailers you’ve known for years? That way, data in hand, you can come back to Expo West the following year and tell the retailers that you know your who your consumers are and how to effectively reach them.

You can break the “same old, same old” cycle. They’ll be so excited to see you again. And who knows, maybe you’ll ditch your typical booth and fill the space with organic topsoil, worms, humus, and plants — your garden of earthly delights.  Whatever the case, you’ll know why you are there and how you want to engage with your consumers and customers.