Mar 2, 2020

We Need to Talk: Why KIND won’t be at Expo West, and why the Natural Foods community may need to re-examine our relationship with the organizers

KIND’s innovation line up is the most exciting and ambitious since our founding. I’ve enjoyed attending Expo West and forging deep friendships in the natural foods space for 26 years. Every year, traveling to Anaheim is one of my most stimulating, and personally enjoyable trips. Our team lines up to get to come. I even prepare a whole new magic set to perform a show at our team dinner.

It is thus with great sadness that we have decided to cancel our attendance at Expo West.

While we are hoping that CVD-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 CVD-19. Our team members’ health is our paramount priority.

We are lucky that KIND today has relations with most retailers, and we can find a way to reach out to each of them.

But I am very worried about the impact this is having on start-ups and small companies. 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. 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.

I have been struck at New Hope’s response over the last several days. Their communications and lack of leadership have missed the mark. Specifically, they seem to be forcing companies to choose 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 wellbeing.

Particularly given how extraordinarily profitable this franchise is to them, and in light of how a large swath of retailers have decided not to attend the trade show, I would have expected New Hope several days ago to offer all exhibitors and attendees a refund (or at a minimum a credit) if they opted not to attend. Instead, New Hope’s reassurance included a commitment to have “15 food safety advisors walking the floor to provide exhibitors with health and safety resources, advice and if necessary, corrections.” To any of us who understand the overwhelming dynamics of this trade show, 15 safety advisors is downright silly.

Even without CV19 and all the numerous cancelations from a vast number of retailers, the investments our community makes into this show are often hard to justify. Consolidation among retail chains has significantly changed dynamics in the natural foods space. The show organizers act as a monopoly that squeezes entrepreneurs at every step. If you compare the costs to exhibit at Natural Products Expo vs. exhibiting at the Specialty Foods Show, the gap is stark. The Specialty Foods Association is a membership based group: it is there to serve the manufacturers and retailers. It charges a fraction of what New Hope charges. New Hope is there to serve itself, and thus its policies and terms are so much more onerous – including techniques to upsell. Just one example: SFA gives priority based on seniority – so even if you are a small company, if you’ve been exhibiting for a while, you get to choose your booth early; but Expo’s system incents you to set up ever bigger booths because otherwise you lose priority to choose your booth location.

Not content with charging exorbitant fees to exhibitors, New Hope also charges extraordinarily high fees to attendees. Somehow I guess I am also in an “attendee” list for Expo and earlier this week I got an invitation from New Hope to seize an opportunity to pay only $995 to attend. So they also make it hard on attendees.

It is not comfortable for me to share any of these words. Facing any monopolist is intimidating. But it breaks my heart to see this happen to so many hard working people that put everything on the line to pursue their dreams and advance their missions.  And I think these words needed to be shared. At a minimum, I hope that New Hope offers to provide full refunds to smaller companies. If they do not, it may be time for our community to reevaluate our relationship with New Hope, and to explore whether to create an alternative trade show, to rethink how we connect with the trade, or to create a steering group that negotiates on behalf of the stakeholders this trade show is supposed to serve.

PS: Since I wrote the article, I read this other piece. Had I read it before, my article would have been even more emphatic about how irresponsibly New Hope is behaving. It is not just about treating entrepreneurs fairly from a business standpoint. It seems downright atrocious how they are endangering the whole community’s health.

LinkedIn Article Published March 2, 2020

COVID-19          Leadership

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