The Ultimate Roaster’s Guide to Attending the Specialty Coffee Expo
Thirty-nine years ago, in a room at Hotel Louisa in San Francisco, a small group of coffee roasters and importers gathered to share some wine and talk about forming a new trade association, the Specialty Coffee Advisory Board. Fortunately, they eventually opted to name the new group the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), rather than SCAB.
In 1988, SCAA held its first conference in New Orleans. There were 349 attendees and 55 exhibitors, but within just a few years the annual event had become the largest gathering of coffee professionals in the world, with over 14,000 total attendees.
Now named “The Global Specialty Coffee Expo” to reflect the recent merger between the European and American associations to form the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the annual event attracts thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors from around the globe.
Even if you’ve been to this event a few times, it can feel overwhelming, so we've gathered some advice on attending the Specialty Coffee Expo.
Have An Expo Plan
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” -Helmuth von Moltke
Hopefully, you don’t have any enemies at the Expo other than time and a thousand distractions. While it’s impossible to see and do everything, it is possible to avoid missing something you really wanted to do. It can be disappointing to arrive home from the event and have trouble remembering what you accomplished while making a list of all the things you meant to do and all the people you meant to see but didn’t. All you can remember is bouncing around the convention center and the city for four days like a pinball. This “buyer’s remorse” can be avoided if you have a plan. You might discard parts of the plan when you get your boots on the ground, but at least then you’re making a decision and not being a pinball.
Don’t wait until the last minute. Take some time to carefully review the Expo website. Write a schedule and create a checklist of things you would really regret not doing. Make sure and set alarms on your phone for the “must do” activities. It might seem like overkill to schedule each hour, but you can always rebel and ditch the optional parts of the plan. Melmuth von Moltke didn’t have anything on General Eisenhower, who said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Face Time By Appointment Only
“The wisest prophets make sure of the event first.” -Horace Walpole
Make a list of all the people you need to talk to and want to see while at Expo. Don’t leave a meeting to chance, even if it’s just a social encounter. If you really want to see someone, schedule it. If it’s a friend or colleague you just want to say hello to, make sure they will actually be at the party or reception you’re assuming they’ll be at.
This is true even for visits with exhibitors. Yes, that sales representative for that brewer manufacturer is always in their booth, but if they’re busy talking to someone else every time you “stop by,” you might miss your chance. If you set a time to meet in the booth ahead of the Expo, they can make sure they’re available at the time scheduled. Even if they’re in a conversation with someone else, they can warn them that they have an appointment coming up to meet someone in the booth. Also, be willing to set appointments on Sunday afternoon, when the exhibitors are less busy.
If you’re hoping to have a chance to speak with someone at Olam Specialty Coffee, be assured we would really like to speak with you too while you’re at the Global Specialty Coffee Expo, but don’t leave it to chance. Send an email to email@example.com to set up a meeting in BOOTH #991.
Divide and Conquer
“There’s a lot to be said for small, manageable dreams.” -Douglas Coupland
If more than one person from your company is attending the event, it’s a great idea to have a meeting before to talk about the things you want to accomplish and divvy up the educational sessions. Having two people from your company attend the same lecture is a lost opportunity. If they attend different lectures, they can each bring what they learn back to your company.
Divide and conquer also applies to the Expo exhibitor show floor. Don’t try and tackle the entire floor in one day. By the time you hit the last third of the floor your attention span will be shot along with your feet. If touring the floor is part of your plan, break it up into short visits over all three days.
“I like restraint, if it doesn’t go too far.” -Mae West
You may be tempted to party like it’s 1999, but it’s worth setting a pace as your prepare for three non-stop days. We’re not saying you should teetotal your way through the conference. But jetlag, exhaustion, likely dehydration, perhaps less than stellar grub during the day, and a night of imbibing more than usual can have an unexpected debilitating effect the next morning. To each their own, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. If you want to cut loose, leave the next morning open on your schedule.
Speaking of parties, you’ll never make it to all of them, and if you did, there would have been little value to the evening beyond finger foods and drinks. More than most industries, the coffee business is still driven by relationships and if you spend more time in Lyfts and Ubers than you do establishing or reviving relationships, it’s another opportunity lost.
Due to COVID, the official social calendar for Expo is relatively abbreviated, but you should plan to attend the opening night event. This is open to everyone and a good place to meet people and kick things off, especially if it’s your first time.
On top of the opening night, as a roaster you will be invited to parties hosted by vendors, potential vendors, industry organizations, and maybe even entire countries. But this won’t happen by magic. You have to “put yourself out there,” and meet people. It might seem silly, but again, it is best to have a party strategy. For every party or reception you are invited to, ask yourself why you would attend and go to those for which you have the best answers. And sometimes, if not always, a long dinner with just a few people you know well, or would like to know better, is the best decision.
Visit us at this year's Specialty Coffee Expo. We'll be at Booth 991, right by the Activities Hall. We can't wait to see you.