OverEXPOsed

I’ll begin by reminding us all what a remarkable show Natural Products Expo West has been. I’m speaking as a business journalist who in a varied career has regularly covered major shows not just in food, beverage and beer, but in durable goods manufacturing, robotics, computers, consumer electronics, licensing and architecture/design. Among those, Expo West must rank among the most continually vibrant shows I’ve ever attended, for the sheer abandon with which exhibitors release new products, the increasing thirst of mainstream chains for those innovations and the general sense of pride and accomplishment in a show that’s helping to foster a better way of feeding Americans. Even in the wake of the 2007 financial meltdown, when even that other juggernaut of a beverage showcase, the NACS convenience store show, seemed to feel a tremor, you would not have noticed at Expo West that anything was awry, judging by the attendance, energy and innovation there.
But has it become too much of a good thing? At this latest installation, I’ve never heard so many show-goers and exhibitors complain of the sheer unmanageability of the show. More than once, it has occurred to me that Expo West has become like a richly varied all-you-can-eat buffet that the host invites you to savor to your heart’s content, but warns you to leave in 30 minutes. It’s simply too rich a repast for the time available.
The New Hope Network, which puts on Expo, still gets a lot of things right: the bands playing and food trucks parked outside by the plaza offer some creature comforts to those able to take a break from giving up their weekend to the largely windowless Anaheim Convention Center halls. For those willing to wander a bit afield, there are longstanding foodie meccas like Little Arabia on Brookhurst Avenue, the more recently blossoming Orange Circle, with its gastropubs, barbecue joints and brewpubs, and an increasingly rich craft brewing scene capped by The Bruery a few miles away. Home rentals and ride sharing keep broadening the lodging options beyond corporate chains and kitschy Disneyland standbys. And for the first time in a while this year, I heard no complaints from exhibitors of inadequate policing of products that don’t qualify as natural.
But, still. As the natural products sector has boomed, the show has accommodated the increased demand by adding exhibition spaces in the athletic arena and two nearby hotels, opening the hotels a day earlier so they get a fairer crack at buyer traffic. By now the show draws 3,100 exhibitors and 80,000-plus attendees. That’s including the co-located Engredea ingredients show, which I’ve heard is a trove of cutting edge items (though in 14 straight years of visiting Expo West, I’ve never once been able to carve out enough time to set foot in the joint).
In ways big and small I’ve never heard so many participants complain, and not just the usual gibes about the mixed quality of the crowd, particularly as the weekend advances. Among the beverage people who populate my world, I heard frequent questions as to why NPA can’t do more to consolidate food/beverage exhibitors in more easily walkable confines. Some were stranded in that out-of-way arena; others were buried behind an acre of supplement exhibitors in the main halls, while many buyers with limited time made a beeline for the below-ground ghetto where lots of cool brands seem to end up, and a third-floor area with a similar tilt. Some exhibitors showed me end-of-row spaces that had come in a couple of feet below plan, forcing them to shave their signage and rejigger their booth furniture; by now, the booth numbers on the printed floor plan have become so tiny that even a pair of 20-somethings I approached for help couldn’t read them. (So I guess you’d better use the phone app or else.)
There is inevitable talk among exhibitors that the show needs to move to a venue like Las Vegas, though I cannot imagine a place less psychically hospitable to a show like Expo West. There is some hope: a new structure called ACC North is publicly anticipated to be open by this fall, adding a couple of hundred thousand feet of additional exhibition space and 1,350 parking spots. (I’m no construction manager, but to my untutored eye, it looks like it’s got way longer than just a few more months before it will be housing kombucha- and cold-brew-dispensing Expo exhibitors.) And the increasing relevance of the sibling Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore in the fall may take a bit of the load off Expo West in coming years.
Meanwhile, a few brand owners I know, even though they’re national in scope, are choosing to skip Expo West. One frequent past exhibitor, fed up with playing the slotting game with chain, emailed me before the show on why he took a pass this year on what he calls Expo Worst. “Expo is such a fool’s gold show,” he wrote. “You see all the bodies and hubbub, but it’s tons of riffraff and non-decision-makers. Then an occasional Safeway and Kroger guy walks by . . . and I actually don’t want to play their little extortion game. So why am I there?”
I don’t believe Expo West is in any danger of suffering an avalanche of similar defections. But it might be wise to pay some heed to the growing murmurings of discontent.