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CannaCon: The Making of a Cannabis Industry Event Without the Cannabis

This article is sponsored by CannaCon, Where The Cannabis Industry Does Business.


The way Bob Smart dreamed up a cannabis convention is anything but conventional. “I was watching a TV show called Toy Hunter, and the main guy took some of the toys he had found to a Comic-Con, and for some reason, the word CannaCon floated into my head,” says CannaCon founder Smart. While most would have let this wayward thought come and go, Smart latched onto it. “I almost immediately started thinking about how to execute on this idea. I come from a home and garden show background, so I thought, ‘Okay, let’s make it like a home show.’” Today, CannaCon – which will return in its fourth iteration on February 18–20, 2016 – is the industry’s largest event for cannabis professionals and the general public alike.

Creating a Non-Cannabis Cannabis Convention

Blurred image of a crowded room at a convention

Informed by his home and garden show expertise, Smart had been growing cannabis for nearly 40 years and had published a well-received growing guide online under the alias Agent 86, but in his own words, “Nobody had a clue who I was.” He attended a few industry events for the sake of research, and was dismayed by the stereotypes on display there. Smart felt strongly that anyone should feel comfortable attending a cannabis business convention, regardless of whether or not they worked in the industry. He launched his new show in August of 2014 with that goal in mind.

“The first show we were really only trying to reach growers and processors,” recalls Smart. Advertising was minimal, and word of mouth was the primary traffic driver. Says Smart, “It amazed me how fast people found out and showed up.” Even though he had to work to fill the booth spaces, the event netted a respectable 6,000 attendees in its first year, and Smart realized that there was a much larger market than he had expected for a convention that steered clear of cannabis jargon, symbolism, activism – and even the plant itself. In a fledgling industry where over 200 business shows have sprung up nationwide in the past few years, Smart is confident that strict attention to these stipulations set CannaCon apart.

“CannaCon is a business show – a safe niche,” he explains. “We made a space where any business guy who’s not in the industry can show up, walk around, and feel comfortable. CannaCon is a federal trademark holder, and is held on federal property with security cameras everywhere. We want the public to see us doing business in suits and not getting high.” Every product and service a cannabis professional could require is there, but no actual cannabis is present. CannaCon is even open to the public, and attractions like glass-blowing demonstrations, food trucks, and live music draw attendees from around the world. Soon, Smart found himself scrambling to make room for a surge of exhibitors and attendees – by 2015, booth spaces were selling out in advance, the show was already outgrowing its event space, and he was having to turn prospective speakers away.

CannaCon 2016: What to Watch For

A businessman taking notes on a tablet during a conference

As the industry has grown, so has the breadth of topics that attendees ask to have covered. This year’s 45 seminars address such wide-ranging themes as marketing, rosin technology, law, business development, and cultivation. A lineup of high-profile speakers includes Katherine Grimm, Kyle Kushman, Bruce Barcott, and Aaron Pelley. Also debuting for 2016 is a one-of-a-kind budtender certification course designed to set industry standards. Panels will bring entities like Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board, Department of Health and Department of Agriculture together for question-and-answer sessions unlike any that have been set up before. And new this year is a focus on women in the cannabis industry, with the entirety of Friday dedicated to female speakers.

On the exhibitor side of things, about 25 percent of CannaCon 2016 vendors are from outside the cannabis industry, and for each show, more registrants who said they couldn’t be associated with cannabis because of politics have had a change of heart. Companies like House & Garden, American Air Filter, General Hydroponics, and more are among those who have had policy changes since the show’s inception, and will be in attendance in 2016­.

Looking at the industry as a whole, Smart conjectures that cannabis policy reform will reach critical mass in 2016 or 2017, at which point the stigma surrounding the industry will be broken down to the point that the sort of hesitations exhibitors have expressed in the past will no longer be a factor. And when the industry reaches that point, Smart wants to be in a position where if you can only go to one cannabis industry show per year, CannaCon is it.

CannaCon returns to Pier 91 in Seattle on February 18–20, 2016. To purchase tickets, visit www.cannacon.org.

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