Expo West – Then & Now

“If I don’t get a new client at Expo West, I am shutting down Health and Fitness.” It was the middle of the day in February 2014 and I was on the phone with my mom. Expo West was and is the largest event in the natural-products industry. This statement wasn’t a pity-move. It was a fact. It had been a rough year. My first internal hire and best friend had been killed suddenly by a drunk driver at the age of 36. I had divorced my largest client – we’d mutually agreed we were in a toxic relationship. And my 2013 tax return busted any bubble of disillusionment that I was really “making it” as a business.

Jessica Shields displaying her expo pass

Something had to give. So, I scrounged up every penny I had and forked over almost $1,200 to travel to Anaheim and attend Expo West. This seems like a bargain now, but at the time, that was almost unthinkable.

As I flew to Expo West, my heart was full of hope and anxiety, in equal parts. This HAD to work. I shoe-stringed my way through Expo; staying at the Best Western, eating dinner at quick service restaurants and grazing through lunch by taking every exhibitor sample that was offered to me.

The experience did not disappoint. Back then, there were “only” 2,500 exhibitors, each showing off their newly-innovated products. It’s impossible to attend this expo and not be affected by the contagious enthusiasm and passion these companies bring, especially the start-up brands. Even as an introvert, I found myself fully engaged with founders and CEOs from open to close…and at the after-hours events.

Looking back, I can see I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew I could help companies reach their target consumers with staff that made sense for their brand and that’s what I communicated. I just needed some of them to believe in me.

In the end, I did get a handful of clients at Expo West. Most notably, a cold-pressed coconut water. The guerilla sampling program was the largest contract I’d secured up to that date. We sampled about 100,000 samples of coconut water in the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California. It opened the door to our event marketing business.

A side note – Alicia Boisvert also made her big break on this program. She showed such strong leadership skills in her management of this program that a few months later, after the birth of my daughter, I asked her to run the company. What a beautiful business partnership and friendship that has turned out to be!

Fast forward six years. Expo West is our staple event each year. Not only do we usually get new business, but we also get to connect with clients and co-workers. I truly look forward to this event every year.

Posing in front of the Kodiak Cakes photo set

This year, Alicia and I would have brought two of our team members, who recently celebrated their one-year anniversaries with our company. The four of us constitute half of the HFA team. But, unfortunately, this year the Expo was canceled due to the coronavirus. I am not doubting the validity of the decision to cancel. I’m just mourning.

My heart hurts for dreamers who are where I was 6 years ago, putting an unthinkable amount of money into Expo West, hoping they will get their must-have retailer or client. It’s incredibly exhausting to be the sole cheerleader for your brand/cause. Events like Expo West refill your tank to keep on keepin’ on. But to you solopreneurs and small start-ups, I encourage you to keep going! Retailers are more open to innovation than they have ever been. Consumers are seeing the value of natural foods more than they have in decades. So in the words of the wise fish Dory: Just. Keep. Swimming.


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