At this year’s Global Tea Initiative (January 19, 2023), we celebrated the return of opportunities for tea people to gather in person and compare notes about where we would meet again during the rest of the year. Inevitably, this fueled debates about choosing between so many excellent and valuable options. But this abundance comes with controversy and a challenge to make the best choice for yourself, your tea business, or your desire to create a tea business. We can no longer afford to do it all. So, the decisions we make now include more math and budgeting. What are your considerations? T Ching readers, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs might want to be part of the discussion. Here is a summary of these discussions and my conclusions.
How do you choose your Tea Events?
Every tea event is unique and valuable, but what’s right for you? Let’s focus on five very different kinds of events to help you make the decision.
- The Global Tea Initiative, U.C. Davis
- World Tea Expo; Business-focused events
- U.S. Tea Festivals; Consumer-focused events
- Tea Travel to countries of origin
- International Tea Festivals: Combine wholesale and retail experiences
If you are a hobbyist tea lover (not a business), you may be equally – even more – interested in attending tea events than tea business owners. Your criteria are different but will undoubtedly overlap. No two options are alike. Even the different festivals are unique. Having been fortunate to experience all of them, I encourage you to attend as many as possible.
A Dozen Things to Consider. What matters most to you?
- Are you a consumer/hobbyist, or an entrepreneur, or are you considering launching a tea business?
- Where will you have the most tea “fun”?
- Calculate the total cost vs. your budget. Include total travel costs.
- Who do you want to meet? Check out the list of speakers, demonstrations, and vendors.
- Educational Opportunities. What classes are offered? Who’s teaching? What meets your immediate need?
- Are there show specials? What are you shopping for? Check the vendor list in advance. Check out their websites. Meet them virtually before you meet in person.
- Will there be tasting experiences? What teas do you want to learn more about?
- What changes do you want to make in your business? Or . . . Are you thinking of starting a tea business? At what stage are you in toward planning a new tea business?
- What are your goals in the industry, especially if your dreams are to become an educator, and what do you need to support them?
- These options all offer personal value; How can they most benefit you?
- Are you looking for professional mentorship? Is there an additional benefit to scheduling an in-person meeting?
- If you’re a vendor or sponsor, how many new customers can you reach?
Global Tea Initiative, U.C. Davis, California – January 19, 2023
GTI was the first event of the year. It is an annual January event. Even though it’s over for this year, it’s time to consider it for your plan in 2024. This is an academic event. It is an international gathering with speakers and attendees coming from many different countries around the world. The speaker list is generated from around the world and weaves together the tea world of art, agriculture, nutrition, marketing, and more. Students in the programs at UCD. have an opportunity to meet industry leaders who offer them internships. And UCD educators facilitate these connections. Attendees have the opportunity to meet graduate students and discuss their research and encourage the next generation of tea professionals. Sponsors serve their tea and demonstrate their teaware.
The cost: GTI is a one-day event that, because it is sponsored by the university and major tea businesses, is free to attendees. Attendee costs are limited to personal travel. (Read T Ching’s article on this year’s event.)
World Tea Expo – March 27-29, 2023 – Las Vegas, NV
World Tea Expo and Conference in Las Vegas has long been the crown jewel in the North American Specialty Tea world. For the years before consumer festivals, it was considered the only game in town. It was the only place where tea people came together. And it felt like a family reunion. It is not an option for tea hobbyists but is important for some kinds of businesses, particularly those who are planning a business on a large scale or for international tea businesses introducing their brand to the U.S. There tend to be vendors providing services for packaging that are less likely at consumer-focused festivals.
While there is sampling at vendor booths and as part of the educational conference, there are no retail sales from the show floor. Booth staff sample products and write orders that will be shipped. Concentration on wholesale-only presentations is one of the important features of WTE, making it the only true tea trade show in North America.
As the industry has matured, Expo has changed. For many years WTE has tried to lure the restaurant and foodservice industries to the show with only moderate success. Certainly, competing with coffee & tea combo trade shows and the Fancy Food Shows was daunting. So, when Questex purchased WTE, they transformed it from tea-only by combining it with their other event, the Bar & Nightclub show.
This year will be the third year that Questex has given WTE a pavilion in their larger show, continuing to provide some conference space. It is unlike any other tea event in the world. The combination show is much stronger for some of the current trends like Bobo and Komboucha and other ready-to-drink products than smaller consumer shows. For many new brands trying to make a name for themselves, launching their products in this heightened environment is beneficial. All attendees access both shows so tea vendors meet bar and nightclub owners as well as tea people. And they can speak directly to the new trend toward alcohol-free nightclubs.
The cost: Attendees can visit the show floor for about $200 or secure a premier conference pass for approximately $1000. This includes access to the hundreds of vendors for the Bar and Nightclub Show. Single booths for regular exhibitors can vary with amenity options – average $5000. There’s still time to attend this year. But some of the most popular classes may be sold out.
Devan Shah Tea Festival, Los Angeles
Midwest Tea Festival, Overland Park
TeaFest PDX, Portland, OR
U.S. Tea Festivals 2023
- Jan. 28-29 Toronto Tea Festival, Toronto, Canada
- July 15 TeaFest PDX – Portland
- Aug. (TBA) Rocky Mountain Tea Fest – Boulder
- TBA Devan Shah Tea Fest – Los Angeles
- September 22 – 23 Pennsylvania Tea Fest – Mechanicsburg
- September 23-24, Northwest Tea Festival, Seattle
- TBA San Francisco International Tea Festival, San Francisco
- Oct. 21-23 Midwest Tea Fest – Kansas City (Overland Park)
- TBA Vancouver Tea Fest – Vancouver, Canada
- More Tea Festival announcements are anticipated
(T Ching will be updating the list as events are announced. Festivals are currently being considered in several additional cities. If we’ve left an event off this list, please let us know.)
Tea Festivals are celebrations for everyone, hobbyists and businesses – but more focused on consumers. Many first-time attendees leave saying that they, ” . . . never knew there was so much to know about tea.” And it’s when we hear this, we know we’ve just welcomed another lifelong specialty tea enthusiast into our community.
We see that tea lovers travel to the different festivals. They tend to make friends at these events and enthusiastically invite friends and family to join them. Some tea friendships that blossom at a festival become annual rendezvous. Attendees plan full weekends and help each other select classes and demonstrations. Most are family friendly with activities for all ages and teas for all preferences.
Festival organizers usually like to design their events to appeal to diverse interests. Businesses of all sizes can afford to participate as vendors, (approx. $300 – $600) offering sample tastings and some special deals of great tea products. Classes, demos and entertainment generate fun for all ages. Unlike wholesale trade shows, festivals are very sales oriented. They are tea marketplaces. By offering samples of brewed tea and sometimes packaged, take-home samples as well, attendees can easily experience and then purchase many different teas. Some of the larger brands staff festival booths with their sales teams so that they have face-to-face meetings with actual customers.
Northwest Tea Festival, Seattle, WA
And, with an average of 10% of attendees either operating a tea business already or planning one, they can combine retail and wholesale experiences in the same way that the International Expos do. (See below) U.S. Festivals are also opportunities for up-and-coming speakers and educators to develop their presentations, building experience and recognition in the tea industry.
Costs: Tickets usually range from $15-$30 which might include some free classes or exhibits and then charge an additional fee for classes. ($5 – $50) For example, a more expensive class might be a full afternoon tea with a speaker while a free or $5 could be a Tea 101 class or presentation on Tea and Health, Cooking With Tea, or small group tastings.
International Tea Travel – Tea Gardens, Historic Tea Sites and International Tea Expos
For many tea entrepreneurs, international travel is one of the alluring benefits. You can pluck, roll and dry your own tea. This is also the dream of almost every tea lover. But you can also visit the original fields of legendary teas and of tea legends; the origin of TeaKwanYin, DaHongPao, the plantation of Sir Thomas Lipton, and the first fields planted in South Korea and Japan. Vacation in Hawaii or the Azors on a tea farm. In India, Nepal, and Africa.
The first tea tourism company, World Tea Tours, provided this for many of us who you now see leading major companies and tea associations. On my first tour with Dan Robertson, I traveled with the head of a French tea association, the director of sales in Eastern Europe for an international brand, a Canadian tea shop owner, and a U.S. tea shop owner. He even arranged for me to live in a tea growing and producing community with a family who took me out before dawn to pluck, then to their factory to process and finally to their kitchen to cook with fresh tea leaves and everything from their garden. Dan Robertson also arranged for my first visit to major Chinese Tea Trade Show (mind blowing).
International Tea Expos that are so large it’s impossible to describe in context with the tea events in the U.S. and Canada. Where our events might attract 2000 – 3000 attendees to shop at 30 – 100 booths and attend a dozen-ish classes, these events often attract more than 1000 vendors and over 50,000 attendees. They are open to businesses seeking large wholesale quantities as well as consumers buying 100 grams.
Making a PuErh Cake in Kunming
Myunmong World Tea Expo, Seoul, S. Korea
Fujian Tea Festival
These kinds of experiences – tours to tea farms and large Expos – are rare. And wonderful. There are now dozens of tours and lodging experiences on tea plantations around the world. For all tea lovers they help us understand and appreciate tea in a whole new way. We can better appreciate the ancient cultures for whom tea is more than a beverage.
Cost: Tours can range from $2000 – $20,000. This does not include pre-tour airfare or the teas and teaware you purchase. But group transportantion, hotels and meals are usually included.
Are there too many choices? Yes … And No.
Yes… if you are concerned that most of the current tea events, both B2B (business-facing) and B2C (consumer-facing) are struggling to finance their events, and you mistakenly imagine that having fewer will improve the odds! But I think this is a superficial view – believing that there is harm in competition. There’s evidence that this is not true.
We see the greatest growth and success throughout the Specialty Tea Industry where there are competitive and interactive communities. I point to successful tea retailers and tearooms in communities with multiple businesses. This is true for U.S. tea festivals in On the West Coast; California, Oregon, and Washington, organizers tend to support each other, and attendees frequently attend more than one event.
So . . . No . . . We do not yet have enough events to satisfy the needs and desires of tea lovers. More importantly, we do not currently support small businesses. There’s not a strong enough network. Specialty Tea in the U.S. does not have an association. The potential is enormous, but the cooperative structure that could make a meaningful difference nationwide. I belong to national associations for herbalists and beekeepers and see what they do for their members. Tea doesn’t even have a directory of business, vendors and services. Events are publicized for the benefit of the organizers and vendors – but especially for the attendees.
Those of us who teach beginner classes and those who meet customers who are very new to tea know how little good information there is for beginners; and how much confusing marketing. We have not yet created a roadmap to guide tea lovers from the comfort zone of tea bags to the adventure of loose leaf teas.
The roadmap I’m envisioning will take them to opportunities for that face-to-face personal experience in a local tea shop, to festivals, to online shopping, to travel, and possibly to their own unique tea business. As a community who knows how much this story is what has built the industry to date, we appreciate the benefits of supporting this network. Everyone matters. Organizers know that at least 10% of festival attendees are tea business owners searching for support. What we should be considering is that some of the children in our audiences are the next generation of specialty tea. Are we welcoming them? Are we exciting them? Are we building a foundation for our present and their future?
TeaTime Magazine booth at the PA Tea Fest
Possibilities For The Future
Attending tea events will help you see what is missing on our map to guide tea drinkers (and future tea LOVERS) to a richer and more meaningful experience. They can help you find your place. You may always remain a private hobbyist. Or you might teach an adult education class in Tea 101 or How To Plan A Tea Party. You might see the amazing value in organizing a high school or college tea club. Or you might be inspired to create your own blend that eventually becomes another success story like Chico Chai.
All the tea events I highlighted today can increase your own personal enjoyment or guide you toward your dream business.
But everything you do, from attending an event, travelling to remote tea fields, to growing your own tea bush, to teaching a class, to writing a blog, to gathering your friends for a community tea club to launching your own brick and mortar will benefit all the other members of our community.
The mistakes we tea lovers, enthusiasts, devotees, and entrepreneurs might make if we sincerely want to support specialty tea is to do nothing and allow this beautiful art to disappear. By doing nothing to build a strong foundation, we allow more space for aggressive marketers to spread false equivalencies like comparing products using concentrates with whole leaf. This does not serve tea drinkers at any level.
When people ask me which tea event is most important, I like to emphasize how vital every experience is to continue to grow a robust tea network. I recommend attending as many tea events as possible, time and treasures being your guide, to increase your appreciation of and support of the industry leaders and organizers. You know the expression … all the boats in the harbor being lifted on the tide. We need more boats and a more robust tide.
I love World Tea Expo and also every one of the festivals. I’m proud of the 10+ years I served on the WTE Advisory Board and WTE Educational Committee, as editor and substitute teacher for World Tea Academy, and a contributing writer to World Tea News. I’ve loved working with industry leaders to look at the needs of small retailers and then create programs like Tea Business Bootcamp (now Tea Business Incubator) and World Tea Tasting Tour (now Tea Flights). For many of those years, WTE enjoyed the status of being the only opportunity for tea people to gather.
But, when we realized the value of creating outreach to consumers, and I found myself drawn to organizing festivals and supporting them. I’m merely shifting my own business model. This is the first year that I will not attend WTE and it is heartbreaking. I will be speaking at TeaFest PDX and Midwest Tea Festival. And I will be sponsoring and promoting some of the others already on the roster and those currently in the planning stages . . . like Paaumal, Mexico.
Retirement? I’ve decided that I can’t quit. But I must transition. I won’t do as much individual consulting or organize any more large festivals but I will support as many as I can. There are still a few things I want to finish while I can. At the top of the list is to publish a more extensive version of “Sip for Peace.” Stay tuned. Happy Sipping!