Amid calls to #CancelExpo over coronavirus threat, natural-products trade show carries on

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ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA — Natural and organic foods brands, including those that call the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado home, are facing a quandary: Do they attend the Natural Products Expo West this week in Anaheim, California, despite concerns about the coronavirus, or do they pull the plug on the massive trade show and lose thousands of dollars in travel and registration fees and miss out on potentially life-changing industry connections? 

Already, more than 100 companies have informed Boulder-based event organizer New Hope Network that they plan to skip the event in Orange County, where a state of emergency over the potential spread of the deadly COVID-2019 virus was declared last week. Dozens of other companies have made similar announcements that specifically reference the coronavirus, which has been detected in at least 37 people in California.

“To all of our friends attending Natural Products Expo West this week, it is with great sadness and much consideration that Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha is pulling back on its participation in 2020 due to concerns over the coronavirus,” a spokesman for the Boulder-based beverage firm told BizWest in an email Monday. “We have weighed the physical and mental safety of our team members while traveling and it simply did not make sense for our continued involvement. We will continue to support the show in our own way, and pass no judgement on those still planning to attend.”

Local Expo West attendees that have bailed on the event include newer snack startups such as Blue Moose of Boulder LLC to established industry giants such as Justin’s LLC. 

“The Justin’s team will no longer be participating in Expo West,” the company posted on its LinkedIn page. “We will miss connecting with industry partners and friends and sharing our new products, but we’re prioritizing the safety and well-being of our team members.”

LinkedIn has become a particularly fertile space for company executives to express their concerns and vent their frustrations about New Hope’s decision to proceed with the event, which often draws more than 80,000 attendees. Many of those posts are tagged with the “#CancelExpo” hashtag. 

In a lengthy post made Sunday that suggests that the natural-foods industry “may need to re-examine our relationship with the organizers,” Kind LLC CEO said New Hope’s “communications and lack of leadership have missed the mark” in the lead up to the trade show that’s set to kick off tomorrow and run through March 7. 

“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,” he wrote. 

New Hope has not decided whether to issue refunds or provide credit to Natural Products Expo East, set for September in Philadelphia.

“This is a fluid situation if there ever was one,” New Hope president Fred Linder told BizWest. “There’s a vocal group that wants us to cancel or postpone, and we’re caught in a very tough spot,” he said. “… People are asking [about the potential for refunds], and we’re evaluating what we’re going to do.” 

Despite New Hope’s decision to move forward with the event, the organization acknowledges the significant strain that coronavirus fears will have on attendance. 

“Through information we have obtained and conversations we’ve had, we estimate that we will see a 40-60 percent drop in attendance from previous years,” according to a New Hope statement released on the Expo West website Monday. “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 has published a set of control measures aimed at minimizing chances that coronavirus is spread at the event. Those measures include the addition of more hand-wash stations, on-site health agency personnel to oversee food safety and a request that attendees traveling from certain countries such as China avoid the event. 

Still, not everyone is cancelling their flights and hotel rooms in Anaheim. Staff with Boulder-based Moon Mother Hemp Co. hemp farm and CBD product maker are among those who still plan to attend Expo West.

“Our team members are not in the high-risk profile for Corona Virus. Therefore, we are feeling confident that we are healthy enough to attend,” Moon Mother spokeswoman Tori Rerick told BizWest. “That being said, we will be taking extra precaution and measures to take care of ourselves and our customers. For example, we will provide protected sampling of our products. It is in our highest interest that our team is well cared for and so are the potential people we are meeting.”