Having had a couple weeks to mull over the recent World Tea Expo, May 2-4 in Las Vegas, I have identified the one thing that stood out for me there: progress.

I should note right up front that I am the editor of World Tea News (WTN), which is owned by the same company that produces the World Tea Expo.  Although I don’t work on the team that produces the Expo, I do have an insider’s view.  I also man the WTN booth at the show, so I have an exhibitor’s view.  And I cover the show for our news as well as the show daily, so I have a reporter’s view.

From this multi-angled perspective, I did see an industry that was being pinched by the recession.  The number of exhibitors and attendees was down a little (although by a lower percentage than at many trade shows in Las Vegas of late), and I heard rumors about some businesses struggling.

I did not, however, see an industry lacking in newcomers, new ideas, and new developments.  On the contrary, I was stunned by the great amount of innovation emerging from a group of people that was smaller relative to last year.

A hundred and one people attended the New Business Bootcamp (NBBC), a conference-within-the-conference specifically for individuals starting new tea businesses.  In other words, just at the Expo, there were more than 100 entrepreneurs who are planning to enter our industry.  This doesn’t count those who registered for the Expo, but didn’t attend the NBBC, or those who couldn’t attend the Expo at all.

That’s not a bad number for an industry that is only supposed to have a few thousand tea rooms and retailers total, according to most estimates.

Suppliers are making progress too.  A hundred and thirteen exhibitors submitted new products for consideration in the Expo’s best new products awards (you can see them all here).  That doesn’t count those who missed the deadline to be included.  On the show floor were aisle after aisle of booths displaying new products.  And, again, that doesn’t count industry members who are developing new products, but were unable to participate in the show.

This is particularly remarkable, given a report Mintel released at the end of April stating that total food and drink product launches have been cut in half since last year.  Comparing the number of new products at last year’s World Tea Expo with those at this year’s Expo, and taking into account the lower number of exhibitors this year, new launches in the tea industry are not down – certainly not by half – and may even have increased (I’ll leave it to the Expo’s organizers to crunch the final numbers).

The point is, amidst a global economic crisis, the tea business continues to innovate.  If we can continue to make progress in this recession, then just imagine how strong we will be when we come out on the other side.

That’s something to look forward to.  But, as I noticed at the World Tea Expo, nobody’s waiting around.