The Show Should Go On At Expo East — Here’s How To Do It Safely

Here we go again.

Seventeen months ago, COVID stormed onto the scene, canceling Natural Products Expo West, the largest and most important trade show for natural and organic food and beverage products, with historic annual attendance of up to 29,000.

Late last week, with the lingering Delta variant bringing masks and potential cancellations back to the COVID forefront, conference organizer New Hope Network sent out an email survey asking whether recipients were attending Expo East, scheduled for Sept. 22-25 in our hometown of Philadelphia and whether they supported wearing masks or requiring proof of vaccination. 

While we agree it’s important to take the proverbial temperature of potential attendees and learn about their concerns, it’s time that our industry takes a more proactive approach to trade shows in an era that requires more flexibility, safety, and technology.

One only needs to look as far as our cousins in the restaurant/hospitality industries. While restaurants, bars, and hotels have been crushed more than most by the pandemic, they have also emerged as essential in many communities, providing much-needed job opportunities, food service, and human connections in spite of COVID’s logistical challenges. Masks, protective screens, distancing, and increased sanitation are all regular parts of restaurant/hospitality operations. As operators have reopened rooms to the public, they continue to survive and thrive in difficult circumstances. Ghost kitchens have evolved into an innovative alternative for resource-strapped operators or those focused on the increased consumer demand for quick delivery. Online food delivery is expected to grow more than 10% annually. The industry has recreated its own future overnight.

Similarly, America’s wellness brands are increasingly essential in a world even more interested in staying healthy and feeding their bodies natural and organic products. This is why our industry should take a page or two from the restaurant/hospitality playbook. Here are four ways we can make trade shows happen in the COVID era, make them safe, and make them valuable.

Make Masks Mandatory: Restaurant and hotel workers, like healthcare workers, don’t have a choice. It’s mask-up or do not work. It’s like that because of the inherent health risks and the business liabilities from staff or customer infections. It should be like that at Expo East and other food and beverage trade shows. Besides controlling spread, the masks will make it easy for people to decide whether or not they want to attend. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is already recommending masks for all those over age 2 while indoors in public places, something the CDC has seconded.

Pack a Restaurant Booth: Exhibitors should ditch their usual setups in favor of something that resembles a restaurant booth. By now, most of us have eaten out since COVID began, and while the experience is different, it has been working. It will help provide distance, limit the # of people in an area, and define space for people to gather briefly and safely sample.

Use Pre-Packaged Sampling: Pre-packaged samples mean less touching/exposure of food and a safer experience for all. Studies show COVID-19 directly increased purchasing of pre-packaged food. Some 36% of adults surveyed last year said they had a more favorable opinion of packaged food due to COVID. While we’re at it, can we do everything we can to ensure we’re not using styrofoam or plastic? Make exhibitors sign a pledge and share it with the world, so everyone will know Expo East is truly natural and organic.

Use Flexible Virtual Programming: We’ve all become used to virtual meetings, and we know they can be a powerful tool to get things done. Virtual programming at Expo East can help limit in-person crowds if necessary and also provide additional space for networking, connecting, and learning from each other. Organizers can use virtual to plan for potential issues of in-person gatherings, like crowd size mandates or cancellations. Another major industry trade show that begins two days after Expo East ends, Fancy Food 2021, just canceled and organizer Specialty Food Association is pivoting to its virtual programming, rebranded as Fancy Food 24/7.

These trade show events make up the lion’s share of revenue for organizations that produce them, like the New Hope Network, which provides valuable information, connections, and resources to those who make and support healthy products. 

For these trade shows to mean something to our industry again, they need to actually happen in whatever fashion possible. We need to find a way to make them happen in ways that keep the best of the in-person experience and add the right amount of safety, technology, and additional planning. This way, we’ll all be prepared no matter what, and we can keep bringing the very best natural and organic food and beverage products to the world — when the world needs them the most.

For updates on COVID-19 health and safety policies for Expo East, check here.