Before COVID, the MJ Business Daily Conference in Las Vegas was the “go to” event for people in the cannabis industry. Over 30,000 people attended the last pre-pandemic conference as a testament to its popularity. Also in the past during the MJBiz event, there have been several other events that have tried to ride the coattails of the massive conference. The thought behind such a strategy is that if so many industry people are going to be there, why not try to capitalize on that?
So there have been investor events, women-focused events, etc. However, they mostly complemented the main event versus competing head-on. That has changed this year. Former MJ Biz executive George Jage, who is often credited with making the MJ Biz event so successful, is hosting his own conference called MJ Unpacked. During the same time and at the literal opposite side of Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay hotel.
The biggest difference between the two is that Unpacked is narrowly targeted on retail and brands with a vetted investor attendance, while MJBiz has something for everyone. Although it could be argued that the exhibitor floor tends to skew heavily towards cultivation and production.
Also, if you’ve ever been to MJ Biz, you learn that a large portion of your budget goes to car services. The Las Vegas Convention Center, where MJ Biz is located, isn’t the place to have a very private meeting and while MJ Biz did create a separate meeting area for companies at the last in-person event, many meetings often take place at hotels outside of the convention hall. Hence, the copious amount of time and money spent on car services – not to mention the grueling line waiting for a cab or car service. Now with a split focus, attendees will be forced to choose how much time to spend at each (if attempting to attend each event) and the expense of traveling back and forth.
Scott Jordan the founder of Alternative Finance Network said, “I will be attending both shows in Vegas this month and see tremendous value in both opportunities. As someone who has attended MJBiz since 2012, my view is that it’s great to have a show that is as segmented as this show will be. I also look forward to seeing what George will put together for Unpacked, which will have a more intimate feel. Both shows will offer very different experiences but a ton of value in terms of education, networking opportunities, and connecting with peers in the industry.”
While Dhaval Shah said, “Competing events at the same time doesn’t benefit anyone or any side. Go to one and lose out on connections at the other and vice versa.” He went on to say, “Just doesn’t make sense if you ask me. If I could give advice to people going to Vegas, I would say skip both events and just network at the after parties and set up lunch meetings. That’s what most veterans do anyways.”
Shah is right. There are many people within the industry who don’t even go to the conference and instead set up camp at a hotel and have the meetings come to them. However, that still puts the onus on the attendees to make time management choices. We’re going to try to help attendees understand the differences between the two competing events so they can plan accordingly.
MJ Biz President Chris Walsh said this year’s registration is in line with its expectations and ahead of its internal expectations. The event had planned to be hybrid in case people had COVID concerns but the organizers said that most people are opting for the in-person ticket. The huge exhibitor floor has traditionally leaned towards cultivators and processors, but there are booths from just about every aspect of the industry. Growing tables, hydroponic products from lights to soil, packaging companies, and extractor machines command many of the big booth setups which is why it sometimes feels like they are the majority of companies on the floor. Walsh said the event has expanded its floor to accommodate wider aisles to give attendees the option for better social distancing. It is currently boasting over 1,000 exhibitors and 250,000+ square feet of floor space.
Not long ago, MJ Biz announced that it too would have a brand component to the show with the addition of a Hall of Flowers (HOF) event. No doubt an attempt to fend off the Unpacked competition. Typically Hall of Flowers events happen in California and are purely brands and most are there to secure dispensary business. However, HOF events are known for the copious amounts of products sold on-site at deep discounts, whereas the Vegas Convention Hall has specifically stated no THC product can be on site. Chris Walsh of MJ Biz described it more as a Hall of Flowers “experience.” The brands can’t have products or sell products so it is most likely going to be booths of companies with empty packages. So far it looks as if there are less than 20 brands planned for the HOF Experience.
MJ Biz is also not playing around with its celebrity keynote speaker Daymond John, who is the Founder/CEO of FUBU, Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, and Star of ABC’s Shark Tank and CEO of The Shark Group. Walsh believes that successful people from other industries can provide wisdom and insight that can be applied to cannabis. There are over 80 speakers scheduled and the sessions cover basically every aspect of the industry. There are four forums being held the day before the actual event begins covering investing, science, hemp and regional associations. There is also a big focus on hemp with the Hemp Industry Daily Forum and the numerous sessions on hemp.
With MJBiz being the main focus of the week, attendees are sure to see whomever they want if they go to the convention hall. There won’t be long lines at registration of previous in-person MJBiz events since pre-registration is required.
Walsh said he certainly welcomes the parties and sanctioned side events for MJ Biz, but conceded that the competing event isn’t helpful to attendees who have to make a choice or try to split time. He believes MJ Biz does cover the retail side of the business and it is true that many sessions address retail issues. There are separate sanctioned events for MJ Biz but the women’s reception and the equity reception cost extra. If you want to use the podcast row, that costs extra too. The price to attend starts at $399 and goes up from there.
MJ Unpacked is a relatively new entrant to the cannabis conference stage. Jage had the unfortunate luck to launch the company right as the pandemic began. He pivoted to virtual events as did many event organizers, so this will be one of his first real in-person conferences. MJ Unpacked bills itself as a brand and retail-focused conference. The conference sessions feature brand and retail experts to discuss pitfalls and success strategies. Retail and brand pain points plus best practices are also a focus.
Jage believes that his event will foster venture capital relationships. Cannabis retailers can get in for free, while others pay $349. There will be special private investor suites on-site at what he dubs the VC Central location. All investors must be accredited. Jage believes too much time is wasted for cannabis companies at MJBiz with newbie investors picking people’s brains. Unpacked says there are 12 hand-picked companies that will pitch to 500 investors. There will also be a special gong on the showroom floor where parties can ring the gong if a deal has been done.
Unpacked has also created a casual game area to foster conversations between companies and investors. In addition, the event is going high-tech with brand towers and an app where interested parties can connect. The idea was to allow companies to be untethered from their booths, which also cost much less than a booth at MJBiz.
There will be exclusive parties broken out with one for retailers and one for brands and a benefit concert featuring the Blues Brothers. Cannabis entrepreneur Jim Belushi will be joined by his late brother’s bandmate Dan Akroyd for the show. Proceeds from the show will go towards the Last Prisoner Project and Jage is hoping to raise $150,000-$200,000.
Unpacked’s keynote also features Belushi, who owns a cannabis farm and has starred in a reality TV show based on running the farm. He is joined by Christie Hefner, who served as the Chairperson and CEO of Playboy Enterprises from 1988 to 2009. Like MJ Biz, Jage believes outside industry speakers can bring value to the audience. Unfortunately for Unpacked, the session speakers aren’t necessarily the company CEO’s as MJBiz has a non-compete agreement of sorts for its speakers. MJBiz says it wants fresh content for its sessions and got a much earlier start in locking down speakers.
Ultimately, Jage believes the days of a conference where cannabis companies go shopping for a light bulb are over. With so much consolidation, big MSO’s are the main purchasers and he thinks they already know who they want to do business with. Instead, Jage believes the future for cannabis events lies with brands and that is why he is focused on that for Unpacked.