Sunday, 30 January 2011 16:07

Tobacco Plus Expo or The NATO Show - Which should you attend in 2011?

Written by Larry Waters
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Your author and friend of the nicotine addictedThere are a number of tobacco and CPG trade shows held for the industry each year. One of the long-time staples has been the Tobacco Plus Expo (TPE). I attended TPE 2009 in New Orleans and TPE 2010 in Las Vegas. I was disappointed by TPE 2010 and made no secret of it. My article at the time, Tobacco Plus Expo 2010 - An Underwhelming Experience, was fairly blunt but intentionally incomplete. I'll explain why shortly.

Perhaps the biggest bombshell at TPE 2010 was the formal announcement by long-time TPE supporter The National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) that they were withdrawing their involvement and support of TPE. Instead, they were launching their own show; The NATO Show, beginning in April 2011. The official reason for this was that NATO felt it was in the "best interests of their members". Other issues aside, NATO's frustration was best demonstrated by TPE 2010 and validated by the agenda and tone of TPE 2011.

In a nutshell, times were and are changing for tobacco manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers. I spoke with many exhibitors and industry association leaders at TPE 2010. Scraping just a little below the surface was a dread and fear for their futures. Congress and the President slammed the PACT Act and what is now called The Tobacco Control Act (TCA) into law with a Pearl Harbor style surprise and ruthlessness.

Both laws were to take effect in just over 3 months and no one at the 2010 show knew what that would mean for the tobacco industry. From what we know today, the effect has been lawsuits against provisions of the PACT Act, the TCA Act, and various States and Cities who began issuing their own draconian and often unconstitutional laws of their own. Confusion and chaos driven by deliberately ambiguous FDA directives and so-called guidance documents which appear at random with incomplete information and short dates until enforcement make compliance by the industry a fluid field which changes day by day.

Product packaging and point-of-purchase displays are no longer focused on how attractive they are to the consumer and making the best use of shelf space for the retailer: it's accomplishing that AND complying with the new FDA mandates and opinions in such a way as to keep the products from being pulled off the shelfs and to keep manufacturers, distributors, and retailers out of some cases, out of jail.

As I mentioned before, my article on the 2010 TPE was intentionally incomplete. I talked about "two tobacco trade shows". Tobacco Plus Expo was obviously one of them but I did not mention the other: it was the NATO Show. The reason for this omission was simple: I knew of and had a great deal of respect for NATO the organization but had no idea what they considered a show "in the best interests of their members". I chose to wait until later in the year when NATO began releasing details of what The NATO Show would actually consist of.

What's old is new again: The NATO Show

I began speaking with Greg Martin, NATO Show's Senior VP of Trade Relations back in October 2010. My hardcore research began in January 2011. The NATO Show will be held on April 12-14 2011 at the Rio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. As I write this, there are 95 confirmed exhibitors. I know that as NATO updates the exhibitor list and booth locations in real time. In fact, the NATO Show website is one of the most comprehensive and helpful trade show sites I've had the pleasure to experience.

I asked Mr. Martin what was the biggest challenge NATO faced in launching their own show. His response was simply "overcoming our past success". A recent TPE fax makes a point of detailing the 15 history of what is now called Tobacco Plus Expo but was previously called among other things, the NATO Conference & Exposition.

In fact, the terms "Tobacco Plus" and "the NATO Show" have become interchangeable to most people in the industry. I've had people tell me they've been going to "the NATO Show" for years. Whichever show you attend, make sure it's the one you intended. Tobacco Plus Expo is NOT the NATO Show nor should it be called that anymore. The tobacco business is confusing enough as it is these days.

NATO published this comparison between The NATO Show and Tobacco Plus Expo in CSP Magazine. I'm going to highlight what caught my eye but please view the complete comparison for yourself. For the cynical among you, since NATO wrote it, it obviously has some bias in the presentation BUT the facts they present are accurate. It's an easy read and very valuable in evaluation evaluating both shows.

The Keynote Speaker at this year's NATO Show is none other than FDA Tobacco Czar Dr. Lawrence Deyton himself! Yes, the man charged with designing and implementing the Tobacco Control Act will be in the same room as the show attendees. How NATO pulled that off is a testament not only to their respected role in the tobacco industry but Dr. Deyton's and FDA's recognition of that.

Contrary to rumor and slightly off-topic, I can categorically state that there will not be a charity "Dunk the Doctor" event where for a sizable donation, attendees can show off their pitching skills by throwing NRT products at a target and dunking Dr. Deyton in a tank of water if they succeed. Interesting thought for the 2012 NATO Show, though.

The manufacturer exhibitors list is equally impressive. Nine of the Kings of Big Tobacco will be present; my personal favorites being smokeless tobacco and snus giant Swedish Match (who for the first time will not be exhibiting at TPE and hopefully will be showing their snus products this year), RJ Reynolds (who I hope will have Camel SNUS and Dissolvable products on display), Altria (Marlboro Snus...really? Let's talk.) and Lorillard Tobacco who completely botched the launch of Triumph Snus and ruined the best American snus option for consumers at the time. You can see the other Big Tobacco folks as well as the complete exhibitors list updating in real time on the NATO Show Exhibitors Page.

Both NATO and TPE have educational seminars during their shows, but if you compare the NATO Show Offerings to Tobacco Plus Expo, the contrast is stunning. You can compare them yourselves on each shows website.

Tobacco Plus Expo and the 2011 Show

TPE 2011 will take place March 2-3 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. From experience I recommend good walking shoes and a GPS to ensure you successfully arrive at TPE 2011. I had to leave bread crumbs to ensure I'd find the correct exit last year. The Las Vegas Convention center is proven to not be very user friendly to navigate. Not TPE's fault but worth noting for those attending, especially for the first time.

I spoke with TPE Spokesperson Marilene Rivera who has been so helpful in past years. Having already talked to NATO, my goal was to try and establish what Tobacco Plus Expo saw as the key differences between both shows. To my surprise, Ms. Rivera stated that there was effectively "no difference" between TPE and the NATO Show.

This made my job more challenging and to be frank, a little frustrating. At a very high level, both shows are similar: they are tobacco industry trade shows, they have exhibitors, they have educational conferences, and they are both being held in Las Vegas this year.

Beyond that I saw significant differences in tone and priorities. Despite repeating my question to Mr. Rivera in every way I could think of, the closest to an answer I received concerned the ancillary events and innuendos concerning the price of attending each show. I'll address these in a moment.

In an unexpected last minute multi-email conversation last night, Susan Reuter from TPE sought, among other things, to clarify Ms. Rivera's statement. "I believe you mistook what Marilene said about both TPE and NATO conference programs being similar in that they addressed topics that were relevant to the show attendees. Not that both shows were similar".

I concede that relevance is up to the individual retailer needs and interests. However, in today's Iron Curtain tobacco world I would suggest that the four conferences TPE is offering this year are not as timely nor as critical as the seven NATO is making available.

That being said, TPE educational conferences I've attended in the past have been very informative and professionally run. The real question is which of the show's conferences and educational seminars are of greater value to attendees and the industry. That will be up to potential attendees to decide when they compare the two programs.

Unfortunately for me, Ms. Reuter did not outline any other significant markers explaining how the two shows were different in her clarification. Were they directed at two different groups of tobacco industry members (with some overlap)? Was TPE positioning itself as more informal in light of the event schedule; more of a socializing/networking emphasis? I received no concrete black and white answers allowing me to advise 'if you are X type of tobacco retailer, distributor or manufacture, TPE is the show you consider.'

TPE sent out a broadcast fax on January 28th saying that they had more than 160 exhibitors including 40 who have never exhibited at TPE shows in the past. Unfortunately, I can't tell you who they are. One thing which has always frustrated me and potential attendees for years is the TPE Exhibitors page. Updated at random intervals, the page is entitled "Past & Current Exhibitors".

Of what possible value is there to listing past exhibitors who will not be at this year's show? I know of at least one person who was primarily planning on attending TPE 2011 to meet with V2 Tobacco, manufacturer of the hugely popular Thunder Extra Strong brand of Scandinavian snus. The only problem is that V2 hasn't exhibited at Tobacco Plus Expo since 2009... yet there they are on the TPE Past & Current Exhibitors as of January 20th, 2011 list.

The TPE January 28th fax says they have "over 160" exhibitors for 2011.  The current TPE-posted Past & Current Exhibitors page lists 135 exhibitors. This includes past exhibitors who will not be attending this year's show. At a minimum, why are the 160 exhibitors who will be attending TPE 2011 not all included in the list; especially the 40 first time exhibitors? Is TPE going to at some point post a complete list of 2011 exhibitors so that retailers know who they can potentially visit with?

Ms. Rivera replied that there are no plans to change the current listing at this time. Further, the complete list of 2011 exhibitors will not be published prior to the show. In our email conversation, Ms. Reuter did not address this subject. I did take the opportunity to share my thoughts on the matter with her, though.

If you like to golf, TPE 2011 does have the TPE Masters Charity Golf Tournament benefiting Cigar Rights of America the day before the show. As a long-time fan of the occasional fine cigar, I would still suggest to TPE that since cigars are currently exempt from both the PACT Act and TCA, a charity golf tournament benefiting "All Other Tobacco Rights of America" would have been a bit more appropriate and could certainly use the money.

On the plus side (no pun intended), the TPE 2011 website is boasting a People’s Republic of China Pavilion. This is new for 2011 and certainly has interesting potential. I applaud TPE management for adding something of great potential value to show attendees. Susan Reuter of TPE also stated that exhibitors from China, The Netherlands, Spain, Egypt, Taiwan, Sweden, Jordan, and Canada will be in attendance. Whether this list of countries includes "past countries" is elusive. I've seen exhibitors from China and Sweden at past shows; as to the other countries, I may have but didn't bother to note their countries of origin.

Let's Separate Fact from Fiction

Reuter Exhibition Services, the company currently managing Tobacco Plus, was obviously not very happy when NATO announced they would be having their own show this year. NATO was obviously unhappy with the Tobacco Plus Expo or they would not have announced the formation of a competing NATO Show....especially with such fanfare at the conclusion of TPE 2010. Do hard feelings exist between the two? No doubt, to one degree or another.

As a result, a number of innuendos have been floating around. Some are true; some are not, so lets clear some of these up. When speaking with Marilene Rivera, she stated that both shows effectively offered the same services but that the NATO Show prices were "much higher" when you read the fine print. The theme of "one low registration fee" is continually featured in TPE sales and advertising communications.

  • Tobacco Plus Expo charges a $30 fee for access to exhibits, conferences, breakfast, the Cigar Bar & Lounge, and complimentary adult beverages during the show. I've studied the "fine print" of the NATO Registration form. For exhibit hall and conference access, the NATO Show is free to all NATO members who register before March 1st. After that, the cost is $30 for exhibit hall only or $125 for exhibit hall and conference access.
  • Non-Members of NATO who register before March 1st are charged $40; $50 after March 1st for exhibit hall access. For exhibit hall and conference access, non-NATO Members will be charged $150 before March 1st; $175 after.
  • Taking them at their word, TPE 2011 has 60 more exhibitors than the first NATO Show will have. This gives TPE 2011 at present a greater amount of exhibitors for attendees to interact with.  However, while the NATO Show is very transparent on who their exhibitors actually are, TPE insists on including "past exhibitors" in their show list.  This makes it very difficult to determine which show will have the exhibitors which best fit each retailer's needs. Quantity is great, but who will be exhibiting at each show is of more importance to potential show attendees in determining the best use of their time.
  • TPE has a golf tournament, Cigar blending sessions with the legendary Jose Blanco, and Spin & Win Prizes. NATO doesn't. I didn't ask if the NATO show is offering complementary drinks on the Show floor. NATO's Opening Night Reception is free to all Show attendees and includes beverages. I for one will need a stiff drink after writing this column.
  • TPE either will not have a keynote speaker (Marilene Rivera of Reuter Expositions) or maybe/sort of/could/could not, according to the TPE 2011 website Keynote Address page, which states "Thank you for visiting the TPE 2011 Keynote Address page. At this time we are still gathering and confirming info to pass along to our Exhibitors and Attendees. As more information becomes available for Tobacco Plus Expo, this page will be updated."
  • NATO will be having a keynote speaker; to my continuing awe and amazement, Lawrence Deyton, M.D. M.S.P.H., Director for Center for Tobacco Products, Food & Drug Administration. The FDA Tobacco Czar's address is entitled “Tobacco Regulation: FDA Viewpoint”. Having Dr. Deyton as NATO's keynote speaker is worth the price of admission all by itself....for the shock value if nothing else but more importantly, to hear The FDA viewpoint on tobacco from the man responsible for that viewpoint.

My Thoughts on TPE 2011 and the NATO Show

Reuter Expositions public information continues to be vague and in some cases misleading. This is particularly true and frustrating concerning the lack of transparency concerning who really will/will not be exhibiting at TPE 2011. Tobacco Industry members and retailers can't justify attending based on the incomplete "Past and Current Exhibitors" list. Once I find out who was actually exhibiting after the show, I could very well be very disappointed I did not attend. As I stated to Ms Reuter last night, "Especially when it came to providing a clear, current and accurate list of exhibitors, I do think you failed the retailers and potential attendee’s badly."

My thoughts on the NATO Show 2011 are based in my conversations with them, the information they make available to potential attendees, their transparency, the Show's tone and mission, the content and stature of their educational conferences, and of course the Keynote Address. NATO has served the interests of tobacco retailers and the tobacco industry for 10 years now and has a solid reputation of integrity and value.

That being said, my ultimate conclusions on the value, effectiveness, and relevance of NATO Show 2011 will be in the execution. As always, I will be following up this column after both shows are over with a candid analysis. How that column will read is up to NATO Show to decide. I wish them a very successful show since those involved in making, distributing, selling, and tobacco consumers need all the help they can get right now. I'm looking forward to attending and seeing NATO Show in action.

My thoughts on Tobacco Plus Expo 2011 are mixed. Reuter does put on a professional show. In a way they are like "Old Tobacco Guys" and I don't mean that in a good way. Times have significantly changed for the worse when it comes to tobacco in America. What TPE, as companies like Lorillard have to understand, is this is not the 1990's. Doing business "the old way" is not practical, helpful, or even realistic in 2011. Burying your corporate head in the sand can very well result in your neck being severed today.

The interesting Chinese Pavilion addition, if it too proves itself to be of value in its execution, is a concrete reason for attending TPE 2011 if that is of interest to you.

Beyond that, I've attended two Tobacco Plus Expo's and the 2011 show and event schedule seems pretty much the same as in past TPE shows. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but having been there/done that, without knowing who these mysterious 160 exhibitors are, how can I justify even a day trip to Las Vegas just to find out?

Expanding upon that, tobacco outlets and retailers also have limited budgets for attending trade shows and limited time they can afford to stay away from their businesses. With two, at a high level, similar type show offerings in Las Vegas in March and April, TPE has made it very difficult for all of us to be able to make a good business decision as to which show will be of most value to us individually.

This lack of transparency; this "we've been doing this for 15 years (under different names and four different owners) so we must be the best and by the way, we have the most exhibitors but we can't tell you who they are" attitude does no service to Reuter or TPE. With the new NATO Show, there is a solid option other than TPE for the tobacco community. TPE needs to prove yourselves all over again and recognize the old ways of marketing a show just aren't going to cut it anymore.

If I don't, and at this point, I have no plans to attend TPE 2011, that is on Reuter Expo's head. They have simply chosen not to demonstrate why TPE 2011 should be the show of choice.

I will be attending NATO Show 2011 in April. I and anyone else who looked at just their public website alone can see that NATO Show 2011 is well worth the visit and the cost. I'm not sure I can say the same of TPE 2011 despite their boasted $30 entrance fee.  Relevant facts always win out over foggy and incomplete information. If nothing else, I hope the folks running TPE will see 2011 as a learning experience on how to justify to retailers and industry people why they should attend a particular tobacco trade show in today's Anti-All-Tobacco/Pro-Big Pharmaceutical environment.

I wish both NATO Show 2011 and TPE 2011 good shows and that those attending either will feel it was time well spent. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, we must hang together or most  assuredly we will all hang separately.

To end on a lighter note, I am hoping to be able to share a photo of myself shaking hands with Dr. Deyton in my post-show column.... sort of a Devil meets Daniel Webster moment. I'm not optimistic but when it comes to FDA and tobacco, you never really know what the possibilities are anymore.

Viva Las Vegas, Official Seal of the Swedish Snus Ambassador to the United States


Swedish Snus Ambassador to the United States
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