The Dos and Don'ts of Cannabis Experiences at Events
For decades, it was criminalized, stigmatized and scrutinized, but over the last few years, cannabis has gone from a taboo topic to a thriving industry poised to set the marketing world ablaze. Marijuana Business Daily estimates that legal sales will grow to more than $20 billion by 2022, up from approximately $10 billion in 2018. In fact, marijuana-infused beverages alone could explode to upwards of $600 million in the next four years. Simply put, the modern cannabis industry is lit.
Events, of course, will be a major contributing factor to that growth. Whereas marijuana policy reform events like Seattle Hempfest, and festivalized experiences like the world-famous High Times Cannabis Cup have been around for nearly 30 years, a host of new cannabis-centric events and experiences are, ahem, cropping up as legalization expands. (Currently, 10 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 33 states permit medical marijuana.)
Among new cannabis events garnering attention: The Palm Springs Cannabis Film Festival & Summit, which debuted in April; MJBizCon, a b-to-b conference held at the Las Vegas Convention Center that attracts over 1,000 exhibitors and more than 27,000 cannabis professionals; and the UPside Down house, an interactive art installation created by UP Cannabis that travels Canada (where recreational cannabis is legal countrywide) to help flip negative cannabis perceptions on their head.
For the experiential industry, all of this translates to big-time marketing potential. It’s a fact not lost on Superfly, creator of iconic music festivals like Outside Lands and Bonnaroo, which in August activated America’s first legal cannabis experience.
Held at Outside Lands, the “Grass Lands” experience, developed in partnership with cannabis events company Highland Events, didn’t involve the consumption or concession of marijuana. It instead served as a town square-style showcase of a variety of cannabis brands offering interactive educational engagements and shopping opportunities. Edibles brand Kiva Confections, for instance, created a bake shop where attendees could sample THC-free sweets, while an activation by True Terpenes featured an interactive “scent wall” that introduced the smell and flavor profile of various terpenes, the fragrant oils that give different strains of cannabis their aroma.
Superfly may have been one of the first to activate in the cannabis space within the U.S., but it is hardly the last. To get the lowdown on what event marketers need to succeed in weed, we tapped industry experts for insights on the do’s and don’ts of creating live, cannabis-based experiences. So roll up, hunker down, and take a look at what the pros had to say.
Make Education a Priority
The stigma around marijuana use has decreased exponentially in recent years, but consumers may still be leery about interacting with cannabis products, cannabis experiences or the plant itself. That makes education paramount.
“The normalization of cannabis is very important to the fabric of the industry and moving this industry forward,” says Salwa Ibrahim, coo at Highland Events. “So we de-stigmatize it by allowing it to be showcased at mainstream music festivals and concerts where it allows for more people to get exposed to it. What was fascinating about Grass Lands, specifically, was there were so many people who had never said the word ‘cannabis’ or looked at a plant, and they were so intrigued and interested because they’re in communities that just don’t have any resources.”
Education doesn’t have to be restricted to recreational cannabis use, either. Medical marijuana is still big business. In August, for instance, Chicago cannabis company Cresco Labs and medical cannabis partner, Tom, Dick & Harry Creative Co., promoted the Cresco Labs Opioid Prescription Exchange (COPE), a program that shows addicts how cannabis can be a viable alternative to opioids when it comes to pain management.
The brands planted a vending machine designed to look like it distributed opioids outside Chicago’s Thompson Center. When passersby interacted with it, a medical cannabis bottle containing a note that offered information on COPE was dispensed. Nearby, there was a 20-foot wall of “NObituaries,” accounts of people who fought and won the opioid battle by turning to medical cannabis.
“Knowledge is power, and people are more likely to be drawn toward an idea or a product that they understand,” says Jason Erkes, chief communications officer at Cresco Labs. “Apple educates people about the functionality of their products and then lets them decide whether they are appropriate for their needs, and Cresco’s cannabis-themed activations are no different in that we are trying to educate the public and eliminate the traditional stigma associated with the plant.”
Play by the Rules
To say the industry still has reams of red tape to break through is putting it lightly. Regulations differ by state and even town, so understanding and abiding by local laws is imperative if you want to avoid having your cannabis experience shut down.
"There were so many people [at Grass Lands] who had never said the word ‘cannabis’ or looked at a plant, and they were so intrigued and interested because they’re in communities that just don’t have any resources.”
"We did a great writeup in July of all the 2017-18 legislation that could impact legal marijuana businesses, as there are quite a lot of bills that have been introduced,” says Noelle Skodzinski, editorial director at Cannabis Business Times.
Skodzinski pointed to legislation introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, the Marijuana Justice Act, which would achieve legalization at the federal level, and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s efforts to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. “That said, all these bills will need to be reintroduced to the new Congress in 2019. So while we are optimistic that change is on the horizon, the legal cannabis industry remains complex, and compliance is essential for all businesses to survive.”
According to Ibrahim, there is no room for error with cannabis regulations, and how they pertain to events.
“In cannabis, we have to be the straight-A student,” she says. “When you pull a permit, you have to abide by every single law if you’re planning on playing this game for the long haul. I would never cut a corner because if you get caught, you put in jeopardy all of your hard work and all of your other permits and businesses. If you’re going to go through the process of hosting an event and going through the permitting process, you have to go all the way.”
Be Prepared for Skepticism
Consumers that are unfamiliar with cannabis—or those that simply haven’t caught up on its modern place in society—may not be open-minded about brands activating in the cannabis space, whether they’re endemic or not.
“It’s such an interesting time because there’s the whole part of [cannabis] that was elicit—in a way it created a baseline of almost an anti-corporate culture,” says Rick Farman, co-founder at Superfly. “So for brands looking to engage in this space, you have to be very conscious that that’s where it’s coming from. There’s skepticism around the corporatization of it... But if you have the proper values and you execute on those, you can do really cool stuff right now.”
Identify Your Cannabis Target
Forget stereotypical images of college hippies taking bong rips before class. Marijuana enthusiasts come in all shapes and sizes, so understanding your audience is key. “We’ve had interactions, positive feedback and enthusiastic thankfulness from every swath of society,” says Erkes.
In a nutshell: the engagement strategy should depend on who the attendees are.
“We know who our audience is—cannabis cultivation business owners and key business management and cultivation members, and cannabis dispensary owners and senior management,” says Skodzinski. “We are not aiming to be a massive ‘catch-all’ type of event that attracts everyone remotely interested in the cannabis industry.”
Ibrahim agrees. “[The Cannabis Cup] I felt has always been the industry marketing to the industry,” she says. “It’s very much reaching existing users and a very skewed new consumer, whereas right now the focus for me is going into arenas and being part of things that are mainstream.”
At the end of the day, the future of the marijuana business is anything but hazy. The industry may still be getting into its groove, but it’s safe to say event professionals are giving cannabis events the green light (sorry, we had to).
"While we are optimistic that change is on the horizon, the legal cannabis industry remains complex, and compliance is essential for all businesses to survive.”
“Someday, we won’t look at these as cannabis experiences,” says Erkes. “They will be wellness experiences, lifestyle experiences. We want cannabis to be something that supplements, not substitutes, the dynamic and active lives people are living today. Don’t think about cannabis being the experience—your life is the experience. We’re just elevating it.”