November 29, 2023

Do coffee trade shows actually benefit smaller businesses?


Every year, it seems there are more and more coffee trade shows popping up around the world. And the industry as a whole loves to attend them, with some events getting bigger and bigger with every edition.

A wide variety of coffee businesses exhibit and take part in trade shows – ranging from more established brands to smaller players in the market. But no matter the size of the business, these events offer exciting opportunities to connect with potential investors, partners, and customers.

For smaller business owners, however, there are some challenges to overcome. Attendance costs can be high, logistics and travel arrangements can prove to be a headache, and ultimately, in an industry dominated by multinationals and other large companies, smaller brands may struggle to get their money’s worth at these trade shows.

To learn more, I spoke to Josh Tarlo, founder of Headstand, and David Donde, founder of Truth Coffee Roasting – read on to learn what they had to say.

You may also like our article on why trade shows are opportunities for coffee education.

A Dalla Corte booth at HostMilano trade show.

Weighing up the costs

Coffee is very much a social beverage – friends gather in cafés, business is conducted over a few espressos, and independent coffee shops are often at the heart of local communities. 

It then makes sense that the coffee industry collectively loves an opportunity to network and connect with other professionals at trade shows. The type of events in the global coffee sector vary widely – from more informal and consumer-focused festivals to B2B expos. 

While networking and business opportunities are obviously the two main purposes of coffee trade shows, some include pioneering and innovative competitions like the World Coffee Championships and Coffee Masters.

First and foremost, before taking part in any event, companies need to register as exhibitors and book booths. The costs of doing so can range significantly, depending on the size and location of the event, as well as demand for exhibitor spots. Rough estimates include £500 (US $634) at smaller regional events to upwards of £50,000 (US $63,463) for the biggest booths at the largest and most popular shows. 

For larger businesses with more substantial marketing budgets, booking trade show booths is a relatively simple process. Smaller companies, however, must divide spending much more carefully. Return on investment for these brands is essential as a stand at a three-day coffee festival might represent a big chunk of their marketing expenditure.

Accounting for all expenses

Josh Tarlo is the founder of Headstand – a coffee leaf seltzer company which also sells loose coffee leaf and herbal mixes. He also has several years of experience working as green buyer and in roasteries, as well as taking part in UK Coffee Championships.

“[Return on investment] is very dependent on the trade show in question as there seems to be different pricing everywhere,” he says. “I think some of the smaller regional trade shows are interesting because you can theoretically cover your costs in retail sales.

“Recently, I was speaking with people who exhibited at Glasgow Coffee Festival, and they were saying that it’s one of the few events where they actually make money,” he adds.

The costs of attending a trade show can quickly stack up. Booking and building an exhibition stand is already expensive, and most coffee events encourage exhibitors to offer free samples to visitors.

David Donde is founder of Truth Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa – and is also a seasoned competition judge.

He puts it quite bluntly, saying: “If you’re holding on to the idea that you are going to break even at a trade show, you may as well shoot yourself in the foot, it’s going to be less painful.”

Trade show attendees watch coffee being brewed at a stand.

The importance of attending trade shows

It’s unrealistic to expect most small coffee businesses to cover their costs at all events they attend. But that doesn’t mean exhibiting is always a fruitless endeavour.

Trade shows essentially provide a captive audience in a concentrated space, which offers a rare kind of access to many different industry professionals, potential buyers, and consumers. So capitalising on this exposure can be a worthy investment of both time and money.

“The only thing I’m looking to get out of a trade show is exposure,” David says. “Trade shows have given me exposure to international media, the public, and trade partners.

“Trade shows are one of the few ways a coffee business can engage with the public one-on-one,” he adds. “Seldom can you have that dialogue with customers – we can’t always do that in a supermarket or a café. The trade show is the perfect place for everyone to listen to each other.”

Beyond consumers and the general public, however, expos are obviously some of the most effective ways to find new business partners. 

“From a trade perspective, it’s an opportunity to meet buyers and the bigger groups who might be unaware of your business, or typically assume your business is too small to work with,” David says – something which is rarely replicated elsewhere in the industry.

Trying to stand out from the crowd

Trade shows can certainly help ease more of the cold-calling approach to sales and business development, and provide a more neutral ground for buyers and sellers to connect.

Josh, however, emphasises that it’s not always a level playing field.

“From a brand-building perspective, unless you have some kind of new product development that you’re trying to showcase, it’s never really financially viable to attend unless you’re a key player in the market,” he tells me. “There’s so much going on at the larger events especially. There is so much noise, so it’s a hard environment to make an impact in.

“Meeting buyers can be so random,” he adds. “Some trade shows in other industries organise pitches and meetings with buyers in a more structured way. Coffee events are sometimes just a roll of the dice – we just put up a stand and hope the buyers walk by.”

An expo attendee drinks tea samples from a batch brewer.

Knowing where and how to invest in resources

So how can small businesses make sure they grab attention at trade shows, especially more established and bigger events?

“The primary resource to consider is time,” David explains. “If I’m attending a trade show, I have to consider whether I can invest in it fully.

“If you don’t go there with a stack of information, with novel products, or be prepared to have interesting and new conversations, then all is lost,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Josh explains that focusing on market relevance and proximity is key.

“Bristol Coffee Festival is interesting to our brand because we have a lot of wholesale accounts in the area,” he tells me. “Our customers are physically close to the venue, so it’s a brand-building exercise that serves them.”

And ultimately, attracting a higher number of booth visitors is not always the most important end goal.

“I want to go to trade shows that are closest to my market, not necessarily the biggest ones,” David says. “Exhibiting at a trade show with 40,000 people walking past you who potentially don’t care about your products is worth a lot less than going to one with three people who do, and who you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.”

Costa Rican coffee professionals brew coffee at a trade show in China.

Advice for trade show newcomers

David and Josh are both clear on one thing: with the exception of a few events, it’s incredibly difficult for small businesses to recoup their investments they make when taking part in coffee trade shows. Exhibition costs are high, sampling is a necessity, and sales aren’t always significant.

However, trade shows do offer captive audiences. People attend because they either work in the coffee sector or have a specific interest in coffee – and an engaging booth can draw attention, regardless of the scale of the event.

Moreover, presence at a trade show alongside some of the biggest names in the industry creates a useful platform for small businesses looking to grow.

Alternatives to exhibiting at events

Given that not all brands – particularly smaller companies – can regularly attend expos, what are some other ways to reach your target market and potential buyers?

As one example of many, social media has transformed marketing techniques, and allows brands to reach more consumers than ever before.

“We spend £100 or £200 through social media channels and create vastly more consumer impressions than I would at a trade show,” Josh says. “I could tie in sampling on top of that, and do a guerilla giveaway somewhere I perceive as relevant or with high foot traffic.

“I can get a lot more from my investment with this approach, in terms of numbers or impressions,” he concludes.

Union Coffee brews a V60 at its stand at the London Coffee Festival.

With so many expos and festivals taking place every year, it’s important for coffee businesses to have a presence in an ever-changing market. But at the same time, companies need to understand what works best for them.

And this is especially true for smaller brands with smaller marketing budgets. Ultimately, balancing the costs of attending with the potential sales possibilities is key.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on ten tips for trade show exhibitors.

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