While the nation was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of the Northern California trade show, Hall of Flowers, held onto the value of face-to-face connections through the creation of ENGAGE. The virtual event fosters networking opportunities between licensed brands and retailers across the state.
While we’re all glad to see the past months of isolation and illness wrapping up, we must admit that even the pandemic had some silver linings: cannabis was declared an essential business in several states; we all learned to value of our health and freedom to roam; and the virtual world of communication blossomed in unexpected ways. For both fledgling and established cannabis businesses, it meant that traditional trade shows and personal visits to dispensaries to sell your wares were no longer possible. Sales reps could continue to make cold calls and send menus by e-mail, but that’s never the same as face-to-face interactions.
Even as the nation gradually opens up, ENGAGE remains a valuable platforms for cannabis businesses of all sizes. The most recent Engage event took place June 8-9, and was decidedly a win-win for all participants.
According to Hall of Flowers team member Aengus Cawley, they realized that through “virtual matchmaking” they could help connect like-minded brands and retailers so that everyone could continue to grow while the nation was shut down. “It’s not a trade show or a Zoom meeting either,” he explained. People were skeptical at first, but once they saw the value of the time, money and energy it saved, they got it. Plus, at trade shows there is no guarantee of meetings, while via ENGAGE you know you will get one-on-one time with buyers and brands.”
The main question posed was, “Would the virtual connections lack the cultural and discovery components that a physical show offers?” To counter those losses, the ENGAGE crew supplemented the new format with weekly mailers about new brands and events on Clubhouse. While Cawley admits that “there is lots to be said for smelling the flowers and looking someone in the eye,” he also has seen ENGAGE flourish over time.
There have been four ENGAGE events, beginning in July 2020, and the one that just wrapped up on June 9 was a win-win for all. Approximately 136 buyers and 74 brands participated in the two-day event which ran from 10 a.m. to noon, with a “Power Hour” from 1-2:00 p.m. to make up for anyone who may have missed a meeting. Each session lasts only 15 minutes, but as Biko’s founder and CEO Timeka Drew discovered, you can fit a whole lot into a short amount of time if you are prepared. Her company launched in February 2021, and this was her first time pitching the brand and sharing information in a formalized manner.
Drew admits that just as she was feeling nervous before it started, a text came through from the ENGAGE tech support team saying they were there to help. “Everyone was so nice and helpful and supportive,” she said. “I was skeptical about how much we could get done in 15-minute meetings, but we put together a deck and still had time for questions at the end. It’s like speed dating for cannabis.”
Biko, which offers premium whole flower pre-rolls, was chosen to be one of three companies that received equity grants allowing them to join The Hall of Flowers ENGAGE event at no charge. For other brand participants, the rate is $2,000. This guarantees 10 meetings with retailers, plus the assistance of the sales team. Uber lunch vouchers were provided for all participants through sponsorships – a nice touch for the busy brands and buyers.
For retailers, there is no fee to enter. “We reach out to buyers who participated in the Hall of Flowers event in the past, although not all understand the digital method the same way,” Cawley said. “We curate the chosen retailers based on their interests and how they mesh with the brands on board.”
Brands of All Sizes See Value
Harborside, one of California’s oldest and largest cannabis dispensary chains, participated in ENGAGE for their third time. The company’s marketing and events coordinator Jessie Corpus explained just how beneficial the event has been during the pandemic.
“We usually do quarterly reviews at Harborside to bring on new brands, so with COVID it was a great outlet,” she said. “Once a brand knew they’d be talking with us, they could send samples ahead of time.”
While ENGAGE has borrowed ideas from standard trade shows, the event expands upon the profiling to create algorithms to make perfect matches.
“ENGAGE matches us with what we’re looking for based upon our criteria and what the brands offer,” Corpus explained. “For example, ‘Is the retailer looking for high end or bargain pricing; ‘What are the target markets?’ Then they give us options, and we get to pick which brands to interview.”
For many brands, this is a rare opportunity, especially for smaller companies with a limited budget. Not only do they get the chance to speak with buyers directly, but they can save money and time otherwise spent at in-person tradeshows on hotels and transportation, and the expenses of setting up a booth to impress.
ENGAGE has given emerging brands the opportunity to get in front of top-notch retailers across California. Both Drew at Biko and Corpus at Harborside see the benefit of ENGAGE continuing after the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps as a fill-in between the regular live Hall of Flowers events, and as a way for entry level brands with lower budgets to be seen.
“ENGAGE has given us a chance to build community with other aligned brands. It gives me a renewed faith in our industry,” Drew said.
Although ENGAGE has been a successful cannabis B2B trade show, everyone is certainly looking forward to being together in person again soon. The Hall of Flowers events have been epic in the past – always a great way for the cannabis community to come together and do business while having some fun. We all look forward to the event at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds on September 22 and 23, and then on December 8 and 9 in Palm Springs. According to Cawley, registrations are filling up fast already. The Santa Rosa event should be as large as it was prior to the coronavirus, and a great place to connect with both old and new friends in the biz. We hope to see you there!