A few weeks before Expo West ’20, New Hope’s Strategic Business Development Director Tara Burkley was on a run in Boulder and heard stories about of people in New York who were stocking up on groceries as COVID began to spread.
“I had started to get questions from a few investors, brands, retailers and brokers on our stance,” she recalls. “Similar to the rest of the Expo community, we all started to investigate.”
New Hope ‘s operations team was seeking out the best information available and they followed the lead of the Anaheim Convention Center, which was moving forward. Buyers and exhibitors were still coming, and the heavy lifting of putting on a show of Expo West’s size and scope had been done for months. It was an event that promised to live up to the company’s high standards of community, celebration and excellence.
Few could have anticipated what lay ahead.
“My flight landed in California, and my phone lit up with the news that we were calling it off for the safety of our community,” she recalls.
A combination of sadness and pride overwhelmed her.
“I knew the realities of what it would cost New Hope to cancel this event and I was proud to work with a team that would make that choice,” says Burkley. “Of course, we all wish it would’ve happened weeks before, but the timing of our decision making data would make anyone’s head spin. We had more than just headlines as our guardrails. We had thousands of brands, retailers, humans with all those thousands of opinions and sorting of the news to consider. The sadness of walking around the show with nobody there was some of the deepest I’ve felt.”
With Expo East coming up Sept 22-25th in Philadelphia, Burkley – a SKU mentor – shared the experience of going virtual and her excitement as we return to live events.
SKU: What do you think the impact was for CPG startups of Expo West being cancelled?
Burkley: At first, shocking and super impactful. I can’t walk in those shoes 100 percent but, I can say that many brands were devastated. Many thrived and took the pivot, creating new ways of connecting through virtual events, phone calls, social media and e-commerce. New Hope set up a fund to help some of the neediest brands and we’ve worked diligently to maintain connection through our virtual platform, media options, credits and idea sharing.
SKU: How did New Hope pivot to the new reality in 2020 and 2021?
Burkley: Our pivots are many over the past 18 months – Expo East 2020 and then Expo West 2021 and now Expo East 2021! We have invested time, energy, resources, funds, and a whole slew of ideas have been vetted and tried. Some have succeeded such as our Virtual Events and some have been a bit less impactful (not worth mentioning). The outcomes have shown us that our community needs us to get back to in-person events. We remain positive and focused on the incredible show we have ahead of us.
SKU: What are some of the things that are planned for Expo East this fall?
Burkley: We’re looking forward to welcoming Kroger, Thrive Market, Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy, Roots Market, Natural Grocers, Fresh Thyme Market, and many others to Philadelphia this fall. Check out our expanded show floor here , as well as our growing list of exhibitors here and stay tuned for more details as we work to finalize our event and education schedule. We will also include programming to breakdown some of the barriers in place for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) owned businesses in partnership with (Included), an organization based in bringing racial equity to the CPG industry. Expo East is opening doors for those business owners who are systemically and socially un‐included and harnessing the power of diversity for the greater elevation of all.
SKU: Are there any things that will be different at Expo East than previous conferences because of COVID?
Burkley: Sampling is a critical and core component of the Natural Products Expos and we’ve been working closely with local authorities to ensure we’re able to return to sampling in a safe and productive manner. Moving forward and in partnership and compliance with the Philadelphia Health Department, we’ll have two different categories of food sampling. The first category is a manufactured sealed sample which will not require any specific provisions. The second is an open sample (prepared or cooked) which must be served in individual portions and will require gloves, a face mask, a hairnet, a sneeze guard or food cover, and hand washing and sanitation kits. Most of these guidelines carry over from our previous policy and we’ll be working closely with the health department for their implementation to ensure the continued health and wellness of our community.
We’re all in this together and we must rely on each other to create the safest and most productive environment possible. As for masking, the target keeps moving and we are asking you to weigh in. A survey has gone out to better understand what protocols will make all feel most comfortable.
SKU: How important do you think it is it to have in-person events like Expo West and Expo East?
Burkley: I think we all know the answer here. We love to be together. Brands and other industry members continue to recognize the tremendous value and ROI an in-person Natural Products Expo generates. The opportunity to gather with industry peers to network and learn together, connect with buyers, and display the latest innovations for the natural products community to experience…there’s just no comparison! Having just attended our first in-person event last week in CA (The NBJ Summit), the energy of the in-person smile and hug and communal laughter cannot be replicated. It is infectious to share in content and discussion in real-time.
SKU: What are you most excited about in terms of going back to an in-person event?
Burkley: All of it. The happenstance meetings, discovery of new brands, founder stories and idea sharing and our first ever FUN RUN to indoctrinate us to the iconic Philly landmarks like Love Park (and the Love Sculpture!), and the Rocky steps. Feeling Strong Now! We also will have a Thursday evening concert which will promote and support our food donation program and contribute to the wonderful city of Philadelphia!