It’s a late summer evening outside Denver and about 100 executive-level attendees, amid of a corporate retreat, are enjoying dinner at an exclusive estate. The setting is swank: chandeliers, stained glass, fine china, stemware and linens. The menu is equally so, created by a notable chef who’s pairing his haute cuisine with fine wines and… marijuana. “You smoke, you eat, you drink,” is the mantra here, echoed by both the chef and the evening’s “cannabis sommelier.” At least a quarter of the dinner guests partake in this sensory feast to their fullest.
Granted, it’s tempting to dismiss this odd scenario as lost footage from Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.” But that dinner, created by Colorado’s Cultivating Spirits, really did take place. Others like it, designed as special events during conventions and meetings, are happening throughout Colorado, Nevada and California. They’re legal, profitable, unique and enjoyable. And as recreational marijuana achieves greater acceptance, cannabis events could become a regular part of many mainstream meetings, conventions and incentive programs.
Like it or not (and several folks still don’t like it), legalized marijuana is increasingly finding favor around the country. As of early 2019, at least 10 states plus the District of Columbia had approved recreational use of cannabis products for adults 21 and older. Add in the states where marijuana is only medically legal, and that number rises to 33. An October 2018 Pew Research poll showed that 62% of Americans approve of legalizing pot use, with nearly three-fourths of millennials giving weed the green thumbs-up.
It’s no surprise, then, that cannabis events have taken off. A quick Google search for pot-related conventions and expos easily turns up plenty of results, from freewheeling festivals to serious medical conferences. Legalized marijuana also has its own advocacy group, the National Cannabis Industry Association, with more than 2,000 members, a full-time lobbying team in Washington, D.C., and dozens of meetings and conferences it produces annually. And as a sign of its industry’s robust times, NCIA recently hired management firm MCI USA to oversee its growing trade show portfolio.
Yet despite this full head of steam (or smoke, as it were), and with major players like New Jersey and New York lumbering toward legislative legalization, challenges remain. Among the biggest: A federal law that still criminalizes marijuana, stringent local-use ordinances, and enduring social stigma and stereotypes. Rather than a tidal wave, legalization might be better viewed for now as a slow but steadily rising tide. For those in the mainstream hospitality business, that means there’s time to plan as cannabis works its way into their world. A good starting point for any mainstream planner: What’s already happening at cannabis-focused events?
It might surprise some that the majority of cannabis conventions and expos are not hazy, hippy-dippy pot parties but rather serious, B2B gatherings that are “nontouch” or pot-free. The participants—financiers, growers, lighting and equipment manufacturers, soil producers and medical professionals, among them—are there for the business of cannabis as opposed to the pure enjoyment of it. Even at events where weed products are present, what transpires is still pretty staid. State and local ordinances remain clear about what’s allowed (displays of plants, edibles and pot-infused items) and what’s verboten (ingestion and smoking) in seminars, lounges and on show floors.
Philip Wolf, CEO and founder of Cultivating Spirits and the aforementioned cannabis sommelier (certified as such by Denver’s Trichome Institute), founded his company in 2014 to coincide with the start of legalized pot in Colorado.
“I saw an opportunity that it would be very big in hospitality and tourism,” says Wolf, who also produces Cannabis Wedding Expo, a weed-centric bridal trade show brand with events in Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Inspired by his wine-and-dine adventures in Spain, Wolf sought a similar type of experience stateside involving marijuana. He books the venues for clients and arranges for them to meet with cultivators who supply the pot. “All the pairings are done with smoking—there’s no infusion in the food and beverage,” says Wolf, who has done dinners for up to 220.
Wolf’s bridal expos are held in high-end venues, drawing a wide range of exhibitors, vendors and attendees: bud bar operators, vaporizer firms, edibles manufacturers, caterers and cannabis florists, among them. However, “there’s no gifting, selling or consumption whatsoever of THC (i.e., tetrahydrocannabinol, pot’s potent psychoactive ingredient),” he says. “What everyone brings in they have to take out—it’s for display only.”
Seattle-based CannaCon produces strictly B2B, weed-free events annually in Seattle; Detroit; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Oklahoma City, where only medical marijuana is legal. In addition to cannabis industry suppliers, CannaCon expos also draw several outside vendors, including bar-coders, air-conditioning companies, payroll firms and even chocolatiers. “They do a little business inside the cannabis industry with products sold for regular retail, so coming to our shows makes sense,” says Angela Grelle, CannaCon’s director of marketing.
As time goes by, Grelle expects more mingling among exhibitors between her shows and mainstream industry events. She also hopes there will be fewer challenges based on cannabis bias.
“I’ve had to push hard to get radio commercials—no one would do them, not even here in Seattle, where recreational use is legal,” says Grelle. Promotional copy is questioned by attorneys, the FCC and others, she adds, while neither Facebook nor Instagram will allow her to advertise at all.
Grelle has had better luck landing venues, but her initial event a few years ago at Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center raised concerns. “They made us hire extra police and security,” she says. “After that, when nothing bad happened, they treated us like any other convention group.” The city, meanwhile, still sends compliance officials to walk the floor, ensuring local and state laws are followed.
The New England Cannabis Network, in conjunction with Paragon Group, is producing eight industry conventions in New England and Nevada this year. “We’re an ancillary, nonplant-touching business—we don’t buy, sell, handle or process cannabis,” says NECANN President and co-founder Marc Shepard.
He sees broad legalization as inevitable and has witnessed a growing relationship among exhibitors between his own shows and mainstream events elsewhere, like Maine’s Home Garden Flower Show. That progress, however, is tempered by lingering pushback from public and private officials about booking events remotely related to marijuana. “We’re being ridiculously patient with the fears right now,” he says, “but acceptance is going to happen.”
Educate Yourself—And Others
That said, some in hospitality have already moved beyond fear and acceptance. In Worcester, Massachusetts, the DCU Center will host its third annual Harvest Cup growers competition this November. The event, which showcases top-line marijuana plants and products, draws more than 130 vendors and some 3,000 attendees, who need to be 21 to enter. “We thought: This is something new as an industry, so we might as well be a leader in it,” says James Moughan, DCU Center’s assistant general manager and director of sales.
For DCU, hosting the show was a no-brainer, as long as attendees complied with the law. “We viewed it as a way to bring everyone together for this event and wanted to see how we could embrace it,” says Moughan.
For his part, Harvest Cup co-founder Peter Bernard saw things as a win-win. “DCU was our preferred location because it’s central to New England and the New York City area,” says Bernard who, as president of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council, had a leg up on the runup to his event. “When I went to the city and said, ‘These are the rules,’ they said ‘How do you know?’” says Bernard. “And I said, ‘Because I helped write them.’”
He hired extra security, updated DCU and city officials regularly, and kept careful track of his show floor items—and the event was a hit. “The city loves us for bringing in money during an otherwise dead time period,” he says. “We showed them we were responsible and competent enough to pull this off.” Communicating openly and conducting business according to the letter of the law go a long way toward winning over skeptics about cannabis-related events. But to be successful requires a certain amount of homework as well. Expect, at least for the near future, to do any serious cannabis business in cash, as marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
The feds also regulate banks, which are reluctant to jump through the financial and legal hoops necessary to support cannabis clients. Also, make sure your legal team thoroughly understands local, state, and federal laws and are available to interpret legalities for clients, city officials and others.
“Education is a key factor in reducing fears and stigma,” says Brooke Gilbert, NCIA’s director of events. A lot of people want to know more about cannabis, whether they indulge or not. “Get to know who those thought leaders are in the industry and use them to help educate your attendees,” she says. “Have that conversation.”