by Ann Armbrecht

This is the third and final installment of our series documenting Herb Pharm’s process planning their booth for Expo West 2020. Read the first post here and the second here.

The word sustainability is over-used and mis-used. It is especially mis-used in the context of a trade show, the very purpose of which is to grow a business which depends on selling more products. Educational programming at natural products trade shows does increasingly include sessions on sustainability issues—climate change, regenerative farming, packaging, zero waste, and more. Even so, no one is really talking about the contradiction between the values that drive this programming and the very different values driving the construction of the booths just across the plaza.

I began following Herb Pharm’s decision making process about planning their Expo West booth because they were interested in looking at this contradiction head on.

“We wanted to use this gathering of smart, passionate people to inspire more action,” Matt Palomares said. For us, our booth is a platform. It’s a way to stand up and say, “This is what we as a company care for.”

“We still need the commercial parts,” Matt continued. “But those don’t have to be front and center of the booth. How can we nurture the commercial relationships we need to have within the context of the mission and values of the company? How can we inspire others to do the same, to use their booth first as a platform to say, ‘This is what we care about and this is what we are doing about it.’”

What Lasts when the Process is All There Is?

For three months I listened to the weekly planning calls at Herb Pharm for their Expo Booth. These calls lasted at least an hour, often 1 ½ hours and had around 8-10 people on them each time. Especially as Expo approached, the meeting focused on updates from each team on the extensive work they had done since the last meeting. Like most companies, Herb Pharm invested a tremendous amount of resources, both in staff time and actual expenditures to get ready. As a last post, I imagined writing about how people responded to their booth and its message, the conversations it generated, the impression it made, how the process led to that outcome.

ExpoWest was cancelled the Monday before the show was to begin on that Wednesday morning. Like all the booths, Herb Pharm’s had already been shipped and was on the trade show floor. The economic impacts of this cancellation were tremendous, only to be dwarfed by the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the United States and the even greater economic repercussions, all of which are being discussed at great length elsewhere. I instead want to focus on the process of planning for a booth when, in the end, at least for now, was never built.

Two weeks before the show was to begin, I spoke with Matt P. about his key takeaways from the planning process. “The personal passion of the team,” he said without hesitating. “The individuals are what made the difference.”

Leading with Values

The previous year, the booth had been a 40-year celebration of the company. In planning, the team spent a lot of time digging deeply into the archive and talking with Ed and Sara about the founding of the company. Through the process they articulated Herb Pharm’s root values in doing what is right for community and nature—as farmers, as herbalists, as stewards, as educators, and as employers. The stations in the booth then focused on reflecting and sharing what the company had done over the years around these values.

The final post discussing Herb Pharm's process of planning a low waste trade show booth at Expo West 2020, which was cancelled due to COVID-19

Documenting Herb Pharm’s 40-year history.

This year they were excited to show how those root values were carrying the company forward. Though no one had a clear vision for the booth at the beginning of the process, they wanted to show that they weren’t just following the crowd, that they were really leading on these issues. The design they came up with was a little louder than usual, Mark Timby, the designer responsible for visualizing the concept, said.

Though I can’t share the concept, it was a strong statement about how, in the design of their booth as in their practices as a company, they were using less to create more. The design they chose was radically different than anything they had previously done. At first Mark wasn’t sure they could pull it off. But he was amazed, as was I and everyone else involved, by how well it all came together.

Teamwork Makes the Difference

At Herb Pharm, no single staff position is dedicated to sustainability. Rather than having one person leading how each team would implement the overall vision, each team was responsible for figuring out how to internalize the core message of the booth in their area, whether that meant managing sales or developing interactive stations or creating gifts for VIPs. They grappled with the options and tradeoffs as best as they could. They researched solutions and presented them at the weekly meetings for feedback. Everyone was engaged, which in turn energized everyone else. “The teamwork was incredible,” Mark said. Stepfanie Romine, Herb Pharm’s Copywriter, mentioned that was well.

“Everyone was very supportive and respective of any ideas,” she said. Someone would take the ball and run with it a ways. Then another person would pick it up and carry it further. Any ideas felt welcome and everyone was heard. “You never felt like an idea was stupid or not good enough, which really fueled the creative process,” Stepfanie said. Mark and Stepfanie both attributed that to the way Matt gave people permission to do their job in a way that felt nurturing and safe.

Each individual brought their personal and professional passion, Matt said. They all worked together in really good ways and came up with a really great booth that made a very strong statement.

Expo West Cancelled

And then the trade show was cancelled. Though now it seems hard to believe anyone considered it wouldn’t be cancelled, at the time it was a huge decision, made at the very last minute.

“It taught us a lot about resilience,” Stepfanie said. “And about not being attached to the outcome.”

Matt held one last meeting with the team the week after the cancellation. He outlined the events leading up to New Hope’s cancellation. Tal Johnson, Herb Pharm’s CEO, made the decision first to pull all staff from Williams from going to the show. Williams is such a small community and they did not want to bring the coronavirus to the town. By mid-late morning on Monday, Herb Pharm, like most companies, decided to pull out of the show for good. Matt was at the airport when he got the message.

Lessons Learned

“I’m sure this is disappointing,” he told the team. “We put so much hard work and personal passion into this. There was a lot of strong conviction for the messages we are putting out. I want you to know the idea isn’t dead. The concept is not dead. It is too bad not to be able to have made a statement. But we will. I want everyone to feel really good about what we did. We should be on our way to see it all come alive, not only the booth, but everything we planned to do in the booth. Keep it alive. And be proud.”

Stepfanie said that the work they did laid the ground for the messaging moving forward. “In the spirit of the booth, nothing will go to waste. Expo West was the news peg for things we will do year round. We do them because it is important to us as a company, not just to use in a trade show booth.” And so the process, disappointing as the outcome was, helped galvanize and focus their energies. And that was invaluable.

Will the Natural Products Industry Lead?

Again and again, I am told that the natural products industry is a wonderful community, that people and companies are really committed to doing the right thing.

Can this recent cancellation be an opportunity for the industry to demonstrate the ways it is committed to doing the right thing? That it really is committed not just to the wellness of consumers and their company’s bottom line but to the wellness of the earth on which we all depend?

These are the conversations that Herb Pharm hoped to inspire with their booth. “We all have the parts of ourselves that care deeply for the world,” Matt said. “In planning our booth, we asked how can we call that part of each person to come forward? Our booth was a way of saying, ‘These are our passions and concerns. What are yours?’”

Herb Pharm hopes to inspire a shift from focusing on a company’s next best product, to talking about the actions they are taking to make the world a better place. Why as a company do you exist? Who’s lives and livelihoods are you supporting? What kinds of relationships and partnerships are you building? What lessons have you learned in the process that you can share with others? How can the trade show itself be a way of connecting around the fact that we all live on a shared earth and that it is up to each of us to figure out soon how to live more responsibly on that earth, as individuals and as companies?

This conversation can continue whether or not a trade show happens.