Our 2012 Tea Lovers Festival in Los Angeles stretched for an entire month – from May 4-27 – so I thought I would be too exhausted from producing it to attend the World Tea Expo this year, which had moved its dates up by a few weeks to the first weekend in June. But how could I miss it, especially since I’d been attending the full show for the past three years? It’s always great to get away, see my friends in the tea industry, and look for some interesting new tea companies for our fundraising line of festival teas. So I decided to do the last-minute, single-day, jet-setting approach – I found a good airfare (with a same-day return), and on the Saturday morning of the Expo, I hopped on a plane to Las Vegas.

My vision of jet-setting glamour was stifled as soon as I stepped outside the Las Vegas airport and into the 105-degree desert heat wave. The five-minute taxi wait felt like five long hours, so I was thrilled to walk into the cool air of the Convention Center and immediately grabbed any free ice-tea offerings from the exhibiting tea purveyors. The World Tea Expo seemed quieter than I remembered it for the past couple of years – perhaps because it was already the weekend, or perhaps because it’s an election year, or because the show’s dates had changed so drastically. Attendance is quite unpredictable when it comes to such events and we face similar uncertainty with our own tea festival every year.

The first person whom I ran into was none other than our dear friend, tea majesty himself – James Norwood Pratt, who is always so gracious and also took part in our popular tea bus tours in San Francisco last fall. It was great to see many of our other tea festival supporters, such as Wendy Weir of the innovative Libre Tea, as well as tea-infused chocolate goddess, Theresa Thielmann of KitchenTLC. In general, conventions tend to attract the same exhibitors from year to year and the World Tea Expo is no exception.

At first glance, it seemed like I was attending the same show as last year, although this year it appeared more streamlined with less peripheral, non-tea-related products. On a closer look, however, I stumbled upon a couple of really exciting tea product ideas. One, a rooibos tea espresso by Tree of Life Teas, served with vanilla soy milk, was rather unique and absolutely delicious. Another was a line of tea blends, modeled after wine flavors, by Vintage Tea Works – a brand-new Ohio-based company. This was both innovative and inspiring! In fact, for years, the tea industry has unsuccessfully tried to market itself to the U.S. public by focusing too much on tea’s health benefits. Chocolate and wine also have health benefits, however, no one buys them for those reasons and we don’t see their respective industries position themselves in such a way. Focusing on diversifying and promoting the pleasure of taste, which is what these two innovative companies seem to be doing, is probably the best answer to World Tea Expo’s main topic this year – “Will Tea Ever Be as Big as Coffee?”.

Another way is to make tea a part of the U.S. culture and market it by introducing the public to various tea-related cultural experiences. This is exactly what our Tea Lovers Festival does – we focus on culture over commerce. This year, by transforming our festival into a month-long celebration of the love of tea, we were able to reach our most diverse audience to date. It also allowed us to produce television-quality workshops, such as the tea-infused dessert competition, Battle of the Bakers, as well as our best-attended cultural program – the Edo Senke Japanese Tea Ceremonies (pictured above). For the latter, we combined tea ceremonies with music, calligraphy, and film screenings in a festive recognition of Japan’s strong tea culture. That’s why I was glad to see that the World Tea Expo is starting to incorporate such cultural elements into its own programming.

The highlight during my short visit to the World Tea Expo was attending the Scholar’s Korean Tea Ceremony (pictured above) by our friends at Hankook Tea, who’ve also been part of our festival for the past two years. This was a very beautiful ceremony and quite different than with what I was previously familiar – it was theatrical and choreographed with expressive movements, in a similar way to a Japanese tea ceremony. My favorite aspect of it was the feminist twist to it, as here it was performed by a woman, while it had traditionally been performed only by men for centuries. Now, who said that the Tea Party has a monopoly on political content when it comes to tea?

Well, politics may not be a good marketing approach to promoting the tea industry, but cultural festivities certainly are. So let’s continue to spread the tea love in festive ways.