Cannabis trade shows evolve to be mainstream

Marijuana-focused conferences become more frequent as pot legalization looms

youngCanada Therapeutic Root Balm owners David Somers (right) and Diane Penyige display some of the skin creams that they make on Vancouver Island at the Cannabis Life Conference at the Westin Bayshore on July 7  | Glen Korstrom

Back in 2010, when it was a radical idea to hold a trade show that celebrated marijuana and its accessories, entrepreneur Marco Renda helped make history.

The publisher of the alternative-medicine journal Treating Yourself hosted what was reported to be Canada’s first large exposition to promote the responsible use of marijuana as a medicine.

Marijana activist Jodie Emery remembers attending the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for that midsummer event that included a 4,600-square-foot “vapour lounge” for sampling marijuana and multiple booths displaying different varieties of pot.

“The event made waves in the news, with many saying marijuana was getting legitimized as a business because the banners and the booths looked very professional,” Emery said.

Seven years later, pot activists, curious consumers and potential investors can attend a circuit of marijuana, cannabis and hemp trade shows. The rise in these shows coincides with the Canadian federal government aiming to legalize recreational marijuana use and possession by July 1, 2018.

Attendees, however, are less likely to find vapour lounges or to see any marijuana on display at tables because the entire industry has become more conservative, Emery told Business in Vancouver.

The Lift Cannabis Expo, billed as the largest cannabis-related trade show ever held in Vancouver, is slated to take place January 12-14, 2018, at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

When organizer Lift Co. Ltd. held its second annual Toronto Lift Cannabis Expo in May, it welcomed 15,000 people over three days. The Vancouver show is expected to be just as big.

Many attendees of Lift’s May show likely attended the O’Cannabiz Conference & Expo in Toronto a month earlier. Or they might have celebrated 4-20 Day, on April 20, at an all-day gathering at Yonge-Dundas Square.

Vancouver’s current marijuana-related trade shows are many times larger than the small and discreet event that Emery remembers taking place at Heritage Hall in 2011. About 12 tables displayed basic vaporizers, bongs and edibles, she said.

Vancouver-based Cambridge House International produces eight trade shows a year. Its bread and butter is natural resources and technology trade shows, but it has also recently boarded the cannabis bandwagon.

“Our first exposure to the space would have been in 2014 at the Canadian Investor Conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre,” president Jay Martin told BIV. 

“You could find potential investments in mining, technology, real estate, cannabis – really any investment vehicle available for Canadians that we thought were worth a look.”

Cambridge House then co-produced Vancouver’s 2016 Cannabis Hemp Conference and Expo, which drew about 400 people. That event was such a success that, after Cambridge House’s involvement ended, the event's other co-founder, Salimeh Tabrizi, took the reins and made it into an annual occurrence. She organized the second annual conference took place May 6-7 at the University of British Columbia.

Cambridge House backed away from the expos so it could create its own cannabis-related trade show that it intends to present annually in both Toronto and Vancouver.

It held its inaugural Cannabis Life Conference in Toronto in May, following that up with a Cannabis Life Conference at Vancouver’s Westin Bayshore July 7–8, when it attracted an estimated 700 people.

“People attend to learn about a ton of different topics,” Martin said.

“There’s applications and cancer therapy, lifestyle and creativity, sexual wellness. Any of those topics could be an entire two-day conference on their own.”

Unlike the International Cannabis Business Conference, which took place in Vancouver last October, the Cannabis Life Conference targets consumers, not investors.

Emery, however, said she thinks there is an overlap among the many trade shows. She has also noticed an evolution in the demographics and the focus of those who attend these conferences.

“I hate to judge a book by its cover, but you can definitely tell who are the straight people – looking for financial opportunities – and who are the pot people.” •

Watch next week for Business In Vancouver's list of largest trade shows in Metro Vancouver.