‘Green Rush’ Creates New Market for Planners and Venues

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New Cannabis Culture Brings Need for Education and Expos

By Stacy Ross

Just a couple of years ago, most people had not heard of CBD, let alone tried it, and they certainly did not know where to buy it. Today, you can find CBD gummies and body lotion and a roll-on for arthritis. You can buy it at Walmart, gas stations, or at any of the ubiquitous stores advertised on highway billboards. Advocates promise CBD will improve everything from anxiety to joint pain to PTSD. The FDA says not so fast.

The skyrocketing popularity of CBD is reflected in sales forecasts. Analysts predict CBD sales could grow to as much as $22 billion over the next three to five years. And that’s just CBD. Those numbers do not include other cannabis products such as marijuana and hemp. The market projections exist to serve the growing cannabis investment community.

I am a meeting planner, why do I care?

Along with the popularity of CBD comes a lot of confusion and misinformation about what it is, what it does, and whether it is legal. Meanwhile, an amazing array of existing businesses have figured out how to repurpose their products to help the budding entrepreneurs join the Green Rush, and those entrepreneurs need lots of education. It all adds up to a need for… conferences, seminars, meetings, and trade shows. And there’s a lot to learn.

In most cases, these events cover the entire cannabis industry – including marijuana, hemp and Cannabidiol (pronounced ka·nuh·buh·dai·uhl), known as CBD. And that is where the confusion starts.

What is the difference?

Marijuana and hemp are derived from different strains of same plant: cannabis sativa. They look similar, but there’s an important difference: marijuana has higher levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the stuff that gets you high, while hemp has little to none. Components of hemp have been used for centuries to make rope, textiles, and paint. Like THC, CBD is one of hundreds of compounds found in cannabis—both marijuana and hemp varieties.

What can it do for me?

CBD has exploded in popularity because of claims that it can improve or treat dozens of intractable maladies such as multiple sclerosis, depression, insomnia and chronic pain, among others. One CBD-based drug has been approved by the FDA to treat two rare seizure disorders. However, the FDA has warned companies not to market CBD for therapeutic or medical purposes until more studies are conducted.

What is legal and where?

The answer to this question changes on an almost daily basis at both the state and federal level. In most states, its legality depends on whether and how much THC the CBD contains. This fact has tied federal and state legislators in knots.

The 2018 federal farm bill made hemp legal in all 50 states, and thus CBD oil, as long as it contains less that 0.3 percent THC. Still, some states and the FDA, disagree on this.  For example, until recently and despite the farm bill, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem insisted all cannabis-related products were illegal, including CBD. Last year, a CBD store in Rapid City was raided and CBD products worth $3,000 were confiscated.  In a startling turn around, the governor in signed a bill in May legalizing hemp (and thus CBD). In addition, in November, South Dakota voters will decide on two state constitutional amendments which would legalize both medical and recreational marijuana.

The Food and Drug Administration has steadfastly maintained that food or beverage products containing CBD (including those gummies) are not legal. But now Congress has stepped in. In January, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House that would classify CBD as a food supplement, legalizing those gelatinous little bears, and their brethren.  But as of April, the legislation is in limbo as it waits for the FDA to draft regulations.

Conferences, and Meetings and Expos, Oh My!

The bottom line is that a new industry of independent meeting planners, event companies and organizations solely focused on cannabis is burgeoning and, back in the days of in-person events, venues were welcoming them with open arms.

Missouri hosted dozens of CBD and cannabis events, large and small, in 2019. The events’ audiences included suppliers, growers, retailers, patients, consumers, and even artists and dog owners. Kansas City hosted a cannabis art show in November; The Pet CBD Wellness Expo in St. Louis suburb of St. Charles scheduled for April was cancelled due to COVID-19. The pandemic has caused the cancelation of many events scheduled for 2020 and organizers are rescheduling them for next year.

Like Missouri, medical marijuana became legal in Ohio in 2018 and dozens of cannabis-related workshops and conferences were scheduled throughout the state. The second Ohio Cannabis Health and Business Summit was scheduled for June in Cleveland but has been moved to August, 2021. About 500 entrepreneurs, investors, potential patients, physicians and staff from dispensaries and clinics attended the 2019 educational event, put on by the Lakewood Medical Clinic, according to Administrator Erin Lesueur, but they hold smaller seminars throughout the year.

Education continues to be important. “There is a lack of information,” Lesueur said. “People are confused and (are being) misled.”

Open Arms

Ok, so all these events were being held somewhere, but where? One might think the stigma surrounding cannabis would make some venues shy away from hosting conferences and expos. Planners in St. Louis and Kansas City said that they were embraced with open arms.

Jamie Lane was one of those doing the embracing. Lane is director of sales and marketing at the Gateway Center in Collinsville, which hosted the Missouri Cannabis Marketplace, the center’s first cannabis-related show, in 2019.

“Everything from the planning process to every invoice being paid on time, there were no concerns on our end,” Lane said. “Great vendors, great attendees. We would recommend them to other venues. We would welcome them back.”

Lane said she and her staff followed the same process they would for any other potential client. “We did all our research on the front end, as we do with every client,” she said. “We reach out to their (previous) venues. We go through our qualification process to see if we even want to have their event here. We felt very confident they would be a great client to work with.”

“If things would return to normal, you’d have a lot of vendor interest for that kind of event and I think it would be well attended,” Lane said. “We definitely are interested in prospecting for that business. There’s so many medical and recreational off shoots of that.”

Jen Wynn is vice president of expositions at Cannabis Industrial Marketplace, which put on the Collinsville show. CIMP is a business-to-business website for growers and others in the industry. Through their website, the company watched the cannabis market grow and decided to move into trade shows, Wynn said. The 2019 Collinsville show was their third ever. They held a show in Phoenix in February, but several shows scheduled throughout the country for later this year were all moved to 2021.

So far, Wynn said, finding venues hasn’t been particularly hard, although she did have one in Kentucky turn her down. “She just came back and said ‘We are not working with any businesses with cannabis in their name.’”

Their shows are not “consumption” events, and no smoking is allowed. Businesses are their target audience, and the company takes pains to make that clear. “To keep our focus on the business side, we hold weekday shows and have higher ticket prices,” Wynn said. A full-access ticket for the two-day show runs $250.

Old Product, New Market

Vendors at the Collinsville show included a nearly 50-year-old company that makes industrial cooling and air-conditioning equipment, one that makes compost and mulch, and an accounting firm. Each of the businesses existed long before legal cannabis and CBD came on the scene and each found a new market for their products and services. Other vendors were companies selling insurance, security systems, legal services, and packaging. Workshop topics included legislation, licensing, and branding, marketing and cultivation.

MoCannBizCon and Expo was held at Hilton St. Louis Union Station Hotel for the second year in early March. Like Lane, the hotel’s Director of Sales Sara Newell said they went through their normal vetting process before booking the show. “We had no concerns about it,” Newell said. “It’s a huge industry that’s growing, growing, growing.”

Next year’s expo has already been booked for next May, as well as a conference geared toward women in the cannabis industry this December, Newell said.

The new cannabis culture is creating a new market for entrepreneurs and meeting professionals. “There truly is so much opportunity in this industry,” said the Gateway Center’s Lane. “I can see how the need for these events will increase. The success of (these) events will spawn others.”

Stacy Ross is a freelance writer and editor in St. Louis