COVID-19 fears could cut Expo West attendance by as much as 60%

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images

Related tags coronavirus COVID-19 Dietary supplement industry Expo west

Hundreds of companies and brands have announced they won’t be at Expo West because of COVID-19 fears. The show’s organizers said yesterday the show will go on but predict overall attendance could drop by as much as 60%.

The Natural Products Expo West trade show attracted more than 85,000 attendees last year.  The show this year will be severely impacted by the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

Infection rate slows in China, but picks up in US

The latest news on the spread of the virus is mixed.  The rate of new cases seems to have slowed in China, where the virus originated, and where the vast majority of the 90,000 cases reported thus far are located. Chinese authorities reported 202 new cases yesterday, the lowest daily total since January. More than 3,000 people have died from the disease, and cases have now been reported on every continent except Antarctica.

But while the curve is starting to flatten in China, the epidemic appears to be picking up speed in the US.  There have been 88 cases reported here as of this morning, and two deaths, both older men with underlying health conditions who were being cared for at the same facility in Seattle.  But a genetic test done in Washington State and reported in The New York Times ​indicates that the virus might have been spreading for as many as three weeks there.

Other global hotspots for the disease include South Korea (more than 4,300 cases), Italy (1,600) and Iran (1,500). The Centers for Disease Control have advised to avoid all but essential travel to these countries.  Japan, with 900 reported cases, is approaching that status.

Although no recommendations against travel or large gatherings within the US have yet been issued by the US government, a number of state and local governments have issued states of emergency, including Florida, the city of San Francisco and Orange County, where the Expo West show takes place.  New infections were reported in Florida, but the San Francisco and Orange County declarations were reportedly done for prophylactic reasons.

Long list of cancellations

Many companies and brands are taking a cautious view and have restricted travel by employees. Among the major food, beverage and dietary supplement players that have pulled out as of late yesterday are ADM, Bob’s Red Mill, Cytosport, General Mills, Gerber, Ingredion, Kind, Naturex, Nestlé, Reckitt Benckiser, Red Bull and Unilever.  In addition, the organizers said buyers from Kimberton Whole Foods, HEB / Central Market, Costco, Advantage Solutions, MOM's Organic, Harris Teeter, National Co+op Grocers, Whole Foods Market, Fresh Direct, Cambridge Naturals and Advantage Solutions will not be at the show.

Check the official list of drop-outs here ​and click here for a more comprehensive list​ circulating on social media that has not been validated.

(FoodNavigator-USA, NutraIngredients-USA and BeverageDaily will be attending the show this year.)

New Hope said it is taking the following precautions to ensure the health and safety of attendees:

  • Asking those traveling from countries with a CDC Level 3 travel restriction to not make the trip. 
  • Adding washing stations outside and hand sanitizing stations in the convention center in addition to the existing ones provided by the building; plus adding hand sanitizing stations in the Marriott and Hilton Hotels. 
  • Overseeing that all food safety and sampling guidelines are adhered to, in cooperation with the Orange County health agency personnel who will be on-site. 
  • Implementing the cleaning of all high-traffic areas multiple times daily in addition to the standard overnight cleaning. 

New Hope reportedly was not offering refunds for companies that had paid for booths and had decided not to attend or who are concerned about not being able to connect with buyers.

“We also recognize the investment our partners and constituents have made and will work to identify options to mitigate costs over the coming weeks,”​ the company said in a statement.

KIND Snacks: At a minimum, I hope that New Hope offers to provide full refunds to smaller companies

Given the huge expense involved in exhibiting at the show for small brands in particular, several key players in the natural products industry urged New Hope to issue refunds, including KIND Snacks founder Daniel Lubetzky, who wrote a post on linkedin​ entitled: 'We Need to Talk: why KIND won't be at Expo West, and why the Natural Foods community may need to re-examine our relationship with the organizers.'

"Particularly given how extraordinarily profitable this franchise is to them, and in light of how a large swath of retailers have decided not to attend the trade show, I would have expected New Hope several days ago to offer all exhibitors and attendees a refund (or at a minimum a credit) if they opted not to attend.

"At a minimum, I hope that New Hope offers to provide full refunds to smaller companies. If they do not, it may be time for our community to reevalute our relationship with New Hope..."

John Foraker: Refunds or booth credit for Expo East?

Once Upon a Farm CEO John Foraker added in a post this morning​: "Some form of refunds or significant booth credit into Expo East to encourage the re-grouping and continued growth of this ecosystem is absolutely called for."


"We are committed to working with those exhibitors who will not have the conversations or make the connections they need to, to find other ways to support them, either through Expo East or other products and platforms. We also recognize the investment our partners and constituents have made and will work to identify options to mitigate costs over the coming weeks."

March 1 email to exhibitors from New Hope Network executives

In another widely shared post​ on social media, Sagan Schultz, co-founder & CEO at WellWell, MD, MBA, wrote:

"While the city of Costa Mesa is battling to keep the coronavirus out of Orange County and to 'preserve the health of our community,' basic logic would follow that hosting an 85,000+ person gathering based largely on the sampling and sharing of food and beverage is an unbelievably terrible idea given that we know Covid-19 spreads primarily person-to-person by

1) people who are in close contact (within 6 feet)

and 2) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Its other primary method is by contact with infected surfaces or objects.


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