The 2023 World Tea Expo was a strong show for the specialty tea industry

What a difference a year makes! I recently returned from World Tea Conference + Expo (27-29 March) in Las Vegas, Nevada in its second ‘full’ in-person, post-pandemic event (there was a small ‘live’ show in 2021 but participation was minimal) and was incredibly impressed – it was remarkably improved from 2022. A stronger ‘buzz’ and more positive energy permeated the show floor. The size of the show, the feeling and the enthusiasm – from both exhibitors and attendees – harkened back to the early days of World Tea Expo (WTE).

Exhibitor attendance more than doubled from the 2022 show and included many first-time companies such as Wild Orchid Tea Company, Nepal Tea, the Tanzania Tea Collective, the American Yerba Mate Association, Bloomi Tea, and Conjure Tea, as well as returning companies such as Harney & Sons, SerendipiTea, Urban Tea Party, Ohki, Glenburn Tea Direct, Caraway Tea, Nasa Fuso, Florapharm International Tea Importers (ITI), the Sri Lanka Tea Board (representing multiple Sri Lanka Tea companies), Jay Shree Tea, among many others. Returning exhibitors, many of whom had not exhibited since before the Covid-19 outbreak, said how wonderful it was to see friends, colleagues and customers – and conduct business – in person again.

There was an even larger boba/bubble tea presence in 2023 versus 2022, with new exhibitors such as Milk + Tea and Mayde Boba, as well as the returning US Boba Company among several others. Long-time exhibitor, Firsd Tea which is the largest importer of Chinese tea in the United States, debuted its boba offerings. This year’s WTE also included an expanded Asian presence with many new and returning companies from multiple countries including China, Japan, India and Nepal.

Visitor attendance increased as well with a steady flow of traffic over the course of two days (the first day of WTE is now a ‘tea incubator’ for start-up and young tea businesses) – buyers from retailers such as Whole Foods Market and national and multinational tea brands could be seen walking the show floor.

Co-locating with the Bar and Restaurant Expo does bring excitement, noise and traffic to the show floor, and perhaps packaging and labelling companies benefit from the union, but I am not convinced that the union actually brings any added benefits to tea exhibitors, that is, those companies providing origin teas, herbs, spices, flavours, equipment or even accessories. How many bars and mid-tier or moderately priced restaurants are looking for specialty tea programmes, and WTE, at its core is a specialty tea show. Many of the tea exhibitors I spoke with said attendees from the Bar and Restaurant side visited their booths but most were looking for samples and ‘freebies.’

Although, one of the most intriguing ‘tea’ exhibitors I came across was on the Bar & Restaurant side: ClouTea’s ADAM, a robot that makes boba tea drinks, from milk tea to taro root. The two-armed robot has two drink handles that can be customised to make specific drinks and can function as a bartender or barista. The ADAM can be rented for events or hired full-time.

However, the visitors who attended specifically for World Tea Expo of the show were there to learn skills, enhance their knowledge about the tea industry, and conduct business, with many exhibitors saying they either closed deals or had multiple post-show follow ups scheduled with ‘serious’ interested buyers. Most exhibitors I interacted with were extremely pleased with the show and planned to exhibit again at next year’s show.

The annual Tea Tycoons competition took place 28 March. The Tea Tycoons competition honours the late Devan Shah, who was the founder of the International Tea Importers and over his career helped make considerable contributions to the growth, education and innovation of the specialty tea industry. The competition is designed for new businesses, brands, and products to pitch to a panel of expert judges during a live contest at on WTE’s floor’s NxT stage. The goal of this programme is to celebrate emerging small businesses, which produce innovative products that add significant value to the global tea industry. Winners receive numerous benefits to support their growth, including passes to World Tea Expo 2024 and an ITI wholesale account with USD $1,000 credit.

This year’s Tea Tycoon winners were: Brittnee Lau/Treehouse Teas in the Camellia- Sinensis-Focused Company category; Sharyn Johnston/Sinensis (a non-alcoholic tea-based wine in three varieties) in the Innovation category; and Patricia Graells & William Karis/Seven Senses Organic Herbal Teas in the Sustainability category (which curiously beat out Wild Orchid for its regenerative teas and Four Stages Tea & Herbals, which is working to save the monarch butterfly from extinction).

I look forward to seeing the growth and changes at the 2024 World Tea Conference + Expo, which again takes place in Las Vegas, 18-20 March.

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