It’s a quieter, more subdued scene than one might expect for a trade show – especially a cannabis trade show – but at Marijuana Venture’s ninth Interchange buy/sell event, it’s not about the show, it’s about the business.
But make no mistake, business is booming.
Inside the Renton Pavilion, dozens of Washington state-licensed producers and processors move from one meeting to the next, pitching their products to retailers from all over the state who are there specifically to buy stock for their stores. Every 20 minutes, a bell rings and the vendors finish their deals, shake hands (or bump elbows in the COVID era) and move to their next meeting, all meticulously scheduled by an experienced staff.
Over the course of the two-day trade event, each vendor meets with buyers from more than 20 different retailers. It’s like speed dating for the cannabis industry. And it gets results.
“I did three months of business in two days,” Charlene Bohbot, CEO of Holy Smokes, said in an email.
“We crushed it with vendors,” Adam Dewey, director of purchasing at the Elwha Peaks Cannabis dispensary, said in an email. “I honestly cannot imagine it having gone any better.”
For both buyers and sellers, the event is designed to save time and money and to keep the focus on what matters most.
“At the end of day, cannabis is business,” said Greg James, publisher of Marijuana Venture, host of Interchange. “And anytime you’re wasting time, you’re wasting money.”
10 reasons Interchange works
- It’s efficient. Buyers and sellers both save time by having a lot of meetings in a short amount of time.
- There are no distractions. Meetings aren’t interrupted by employees, customers, ringing phones or random distractions.
- It’s industry only. No lookie-loos and nobody looking for freebies or handouts.
- The right people attend the event. When you have a meeting at Interchange, you know you’re sitting down with the right person at that company, whether it’s an owner, manager, buyer or salesperson.
- It’s organized. Meetings are scheduled precisely throughout the day, and vendors have an opportunity to submit a “wish list” of retailers they most want to meet with.
- Relationships are built. Whether vendors are meeting with existing clients or new prospects, the face-to-face meetings are ideal for building profitable, long-term business partnerships.
- It’s local. The Washington Interchange as well as future Interchange events in other states are held exclusively for the local industry.
- It promotes innovation. The hardest part of launching a new brand or product is getting it out in front of buyers. Interchange is a controlled setting where vendors can demo new brands and innovations.
- It’s inexpensive. Retailers attend Interchange at no charge. The fee for vendors is lower than a booth at most industry conferences — and far more time- and cost-effective because sales reps aren’t waiting for potential clients to come to them.
- It’s simple. The Interchange event saves businesses time and money by pounding the pavement for its attendees. No cold calls. No walk-ins. No waiting. Just pure sales.
Though not necessarily a new idea to the traditional business world, Interchange was a first-of-its-kind event in the cannabis industry, drawn from James’ experience working in the consumer media and software industry.
In the early stages of Washington’s adult-use sector, James saw producers being forced to drive their wares all around the state, going from store to store in hopes of getting meetings with often-distracted buyers, wasting time and money and putting untold miles on their vehicles. This approach was not only time-consuming, but not successful in growing sales for producers.
On the flip side, retailers were privately complaining that unannounced visits from vendors were taking staff away from the work of running a successful shop.
“That’s both unprofessional and an irritation,” James said. “On both ends, it’s really beneficial to have structure.”
James had a vision for an event like those from his pre-cannabis days, one in which buyers and sellers were gathered in a single location for the sole purpose of doing business in a series of face-to-face meetings.
“It’s a much more efficient way of showing products to buyers and it saves time,” he said. “Whether you’re the buyer for Walmart or Costco or for a single cannabis shop, you want to have your buying process streamlined, you want it to be predictable and you want to be able to have quality time meeting with new vendors and that’s exactly what we’ve set up.”
In one 18-month stretch before a previous Interchange, Roy Arms, owner of the Boggy Boon brand, said he put 70,000 miles on his car, making deliveries, meeting with buyers and dropping off samples, with actual meetings often being hit-and-miss. But at Interchange, he met with 24 buyers at a single event, generating more sales during the two days at Interchange than in the prior month.
And the business-oriented nature of the event is what keeps buyers coming back to discover new products and strengthen existing relationships.
“Unlike other industry conferences and networking events we have attended, Interchange is a place where deals are made and relationships are formed,” said Michale Beraki, CEO of the Kush 21 retail stores.
James said the event was a “hard sell” at first, particularly because most cannabis trade events were more like big parties than business conferences, packed with socializing and distractions and often open to the general public, just there to gawk and hope for a contact high.
“From day one we’ve been very careful to make sure people know this is a business event,” James said, “It took no time at all for them to realize ‘Wow, we may not have gotten quite as stoned as we did at the party, but we sold a lot more product.’”
Marijuana Venture hosted the first Interchange in 2016, bringing together about 25 leading retailers and 25 producers and processors. Word of the instant success of the first Interchange spread rapidly around the Evergreen State. Every event since then has had more than 40 retailers, representing well over 100 total stores, and 40-50 vendors, though the Spring 2021 event was scaled down slightly to accommodate COVID safety protocols.
In addition to the scheduled meetings, each event features a handful of curated booths that have featured products and services from auxiliary companies such as Bic, Futurola, iHeartJane and springbig, as well as more mainstream businesses and service providers like Obee Credit Union and CIMA Cash Handling America.
“I’ve never done a trade event like this,” Vik Devjee, vice president of CIMA, said in an email. “We were able to walk away with an impressive pipeline of leads with several retailers interested in our cash management solution. There is no doubt we will convert many into revenue and customers. “
Many others have tried to duplicate the success of Interchange, but no organization has achieved the same level of success for attendees.
James said that speaks to the focus, preparation and experience of the Marijuana Venture staff, both in ensuring that vendors and retailers who miss meetings or don’t take them seriously are not invited back and in the precision used in scheduling the more than 1,100 meetings that take place in the course of a single Interchange event.
Several attendees noted the professionalism of the Spring 2021 event, the first in more than a year due to the COVID pandemic that still shadowed April’s conference.
“I have been to several ‘industry events’ in several industries, and this was hands down the best one I’ve ever been to,” Zaire Watkins, account manager for the Seattle Hemp Company, said in an email. “It was fun, it was productive, it was well-run, and (the staff) did it all while dealing with COVID-related hindrances which made (their) jobs much more difficult than it would be during ‘normal’ times.”
Now a proven success, Marijuana Venture is expanding expand the Interchange concept, launching its first Spokane-based event this summer and beginning plans for an Oregon Interchange this year as well, bringing the longest-running, most successful buy/sell conference in the industry to new markets and new retailers. Oregon Interchange will be in Portland on September 15-16.
Next year, the company is exploring new markets for the event, including Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Oklahoma.
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve done this,” James said.