Part of the exhibition space at Grown In’s Illinois Cannabis Business Conference in Chicago on Sept. 15, 2022. Credit: Mike Fourcher / Grown In

No matter who you are, trade shows are exhausting. They demand a pound of psyche and days of recovery. Even for the extreme extroverts among us, we need recovery time after so many handshakes and “light touch” conversations. For that reason, we expect a great deal from trade shows – if they disappoint us, we don’t want to go again. And if they are a good experience, we’ll happily pull ourselves and sales materials together to make the trip. 

I’m not a true road warrior, but I’ve been to my share of trade shows, cannabis and otherwise. But this last week was the first time I hosted a trade show, Grown In’s Illinois Cannabis Business Conference in Chicago (next one in Springfield tomorrow!). And the same week I stopped by Benzinga’s Cannabis Capital Conference, also in Chicago. 

Those two experiences led to seven observations that I think holds true for most cannabis trade shows.

1. We’re still getting over Zoom.

Regardless how much Covid threat there may be, we continue to Zoom much more than we used to. So, when I get to trade meetings, there’s a lot more hugs than there used to be as well as “Wow, it’s so great to meet you in person!” I don’t expect this to go away anytime soon.

2. Everyone is striving for authenticity. Trade shows are a terrible place to measure it.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people at trade shows mention the importance of “cannabis culture”. But when you’re standing behind a counter of packaged products, or in a hotel ballroom, it’s hard to determine exactly what the speaker means, or exactly how real they are when they say it.

3. Cannabis’ racial disparity comes into clear focus at trade shows.

There’s a common rhythm at trade shows: Older white men who lead MSOs or investment groups, often with assistants in tow, looking to find businesses to buy or deals to be made. Then, lots of cannabis businesses led by white men and women. Finally, a few people of color sprinkled into the mix, most of whom are still trying to break into the legal cannabis business or to find a way to grow their small companies. 

It is an inescapable reality of the legal cannabis world, but this past week I heard multiple Black and Latino cannabis owners lament at how dispiriting that disparity can be, especially since people of color believe they can lay a deeper claim to authentic cannabis culture.

4. Umm, so what’s authenticity?

If you’ve been paying attention to marketing at all over the last twenty years, authenticity is the coin of the realm. Customers are seeking more than just a good product, they also want to know where it’s from, who made it, under what conditions, and the origin of the product’s idea. As a result, cannabis companies have been busy developing origin stories, investing in community development and diverse workforces. At trade shows, companies display all of their efforts of being authentic to impress customers of all kinds.

But all these video displays, hand outs, and swag giveaways at trade shows can be self-defeating, causing one to ask, What exactly is authentic? This is the basic, unanswerable question constantly bubbling up in the cannabis industry, especially as companies grow beyond their original founders, and trade shows bring that into sharp focus.

5. As a consumer of trade shows, it’s hard to find what you’re looking for.

I know there are people who arrive at trade shows with a specific, outlined set of things to accomplish. But for me, and many others I talk to, trade shows can feel like swimming through a thick, viscous liquid, as one searches for something valuable to take away. I feel like this is especially true for larger shows with thousands of attendees, and based on the feedback I’ve gotten from our own show already, I see how it’s almost impossible to avoid for organizers. 

Take, for example, panel discussions. I’ve found that many trade show panel discussions are pretty bad. I used to think this was because conference organizers didn’t put effort into identifying good speakers. But now, as a conference organizer, I’ve experienced the intense pressure sponsors put on organizers to provide prime speaking slots for promotion. From what I’m learning, many conference organizers create panels with the express intention of filling them with sponsors interested in each pre-arranged topic. Then, the organizers let the sponsor/speakers say whatever they want. Voila! Cruddy panel discussions.

So, then attendees, largely unaware of how the panels were brought together, stop in multiple panels to discover how uninteresting they are, now and then stumbling on something useful.

6. There’s a wide gap between the needs of big dollar investors and MSOs, and everyone else.

Here’s one I’m betting you’ve never heard: Money talks. To make more money, conferences create multiple levels of sponsorship, providing different levels of visibility. So, who has the most money in cannabis? Big dollar investors, MSOs, and ancillary services companies. In turn, these companies’ sponsorship needs drive the types of panel discussions, who gets the most visibility in exhibition halls, promotion for after parties, signages, and so much more. But exactly what smaller cannabis companies are looking for in a conference is different from what sponsors want conferences to offer. This is creating a noticeable gap – and adds to the feeling of “swimming” I mentioned earlier.

7. Similarly, operators are looking for more shop talk than acquisition talk.

There’s running your business, and thinking about your business. It’s very hard to do both at the same time.

I spend a lot of time talking to small and medium-sized cannabis operators around the country. I’m learning that these business people are pretty much exhausted with talking about acquisitions – who, what price, when, under what circumstances. And many feel like they can’t stop entertaining acquisition discussions (which is thinking about your business) because that’s the only way they can stay current with the value of their own company and get a sense of what business goals might draw future buyers.

But still, for many operators I talk to, acquisition talk has become a distraction from what they’re really trying to do: Run their business. For some owners I talk to, trade shows have become full of more acquisition talk than shop talk. I’m not sure when that changes, or whether conference operators want it to change, since investors bring so much sponsorship money to the table.


Editor Mike is a co-founder and the editor of Grown In, a U.S. national cannabis industry newsletter and training company. His career has taken him from Capitol Hill to Chicago City Hall, from...