Emily Griffith, the Chicago-based founder of a sprouted buckwheat company, invested a large portion of her marketing budget and “endless hours” preparing for the brand’s first-ever trade show, Natural Products Expo West. The event was expected to draw more than 85,000 attendees and 3,600 exhibitors March 3-7 in Anaheim, Calif.

“I was prepared to sample to tens of thousands of buyers, investors, brokers, influencers and journalists with the hopes of turning them into my customers, partners and biggest supporters,” said Ms. Griffith, whose startup, Lil Bucks, produces snacks and toppings.

But in the days leading up to Expo West, concerns related to coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on travel restrictions left participants agonizing over whether to attend, particularly as many major retail buyers, service providers and exhibiting companies announced plans to pull out of the show.

By March 1, New Hope Network, the Boulder, Colo.-based organizer of Expo West, said it expected a 40% to 60% decrease in attendance but still planned to proceed with the show, based on guidance from health officials.

The following evening, hours before the start of the event, New Hope Network announced the decision to postpone with the intention to set a new date by mid-April. A little over a week later, New Hope said it would not reschedule Expo West and would shift its focus and resources towards Natural Products Expo East, scheduled for Sept. 23-26 in Philadelphia. The organizer also said it planned to work with exhibitors and attendees on future credits and support, setting up a $5 million rebate fund to assist small businesses “who are the heartbeat of this community.”

“I was on a plane from Chicago to LA when I found out that the show was postponed,” Ms. Griffith said. “While I know New Hope made the right choice to postpone, I am still at a major loss for the meaningful conversations and impactful exposure that won’t take place with buyers and investors that are hard to reach virtually.”

For entrepreneurs like Ms. Griffith, Expo West represents the year’s biggest opportunity to be discovered by retail buyers, media influencers and investors. Many exhibitors invest tens of thousands of dollars to prepare for and participate in the event.

”Expo West is the Super Bowl of the natural food industry, and we have been preparing for it and investing in it since last summer,” said Jordann Windschauer, founder and chief executive officer of Base Culture, a Clearwater, Fla., baker of gluten-free foods. “Once all of the major retailers canceled, it no longer was a good place for us to spend more time or money. That, paired with the potential health risk, it just was no longer worth it for our lean team.”

While larger exhibitors may more easily absorb the costs of canceling due to corporate travel bans or health concerns, smaller brands were forced to make the difficult decision “between having to lose what to many of them is the largest investment of the year or to face what could turn out to be a potential threat to their health and well-being,” said Daniel Lubetzky, founder and executive chairman of Kind Healthy Snacks, New York.

“As a small company, we didn’t have a financial choice about whether to continue to exhibit or not,” said Nydia Shipman, co-founder and chief operating officer of Chicago startup The Worthy Co. “We spent a lot of money not just on the booth but on the rental of a house, the buying of badges for team members and the shipping of product and new booth collateral designed for this show to Anaheim.

“We were always going to exhibit, but once the key retailers we planned to meet with pulled out we began to question what the value of our attendance would end up being. Certainly once the investors we planned to meet with pulled out and canceled their parties we felt as though we’d been left to attend a show that would mainly consist of us and other startups standing around talking versus the kinds of networking events and meetings we’d anticipated.”

The uncertainty surrounding Expo West unfolded in real time on professional networking platform LinkedIn. Exhibiting brand owners shared plans and opinions on attending as new details emerged on the virus’s spread stateside. Several lambasted the organizer’s decision to proceed with the event after a state of emergency had been declared in Orange County days before. Others pointed to large gatherings and conferences elsewhere that had been canceled recently over coronavirus concerns. A #CancelExpo campaign was created, and a few published open letters imploring New Hope Network to call off or delay the event.

New Hope Network, a business of Informa Markets, meanwhile, already in the process of setting up Expo West, rushed to respond appropriately and devise a contingency plan in the final countdown to the event.

“Even the most sophisticated and detailed crisis communications plan doesn’t anticipate a global health crisis — although it likely will now — so it’s not surprising that the New Hope team was scrambling to figure out the right direction to take with Expo West,” said Rachel Kay, president of Rachel Kay Public Relations, which represents 26 brands that planned to exhibit at Expo West. “This was an unprecedented event, and I don’t think we can fathom the vast number of inquiries they were responding to minute by minute.

“Unfortunately, the rapid escalation of the situation and people’s immediate need for answers meant brands were making decisions based in large part on information they found online from their peers. The team did a great job of engaging in the online conversations, but the most critical piece of information to help exhibitors make a decision prior to show cancellation was knowing what retailers had opted out, and that was definitely cryptic. Moving swiftly and being the hub of the most-up-to-date information should be prioritized at this point. New Hope has built significant trust equity with brands and retailers, and they have a great opportunity moving forward to take the reins and demonstrate the leadership we are used to.”

In wake of the delayed show, many companies have offered services or discounts to support small brands that may have been hit the hardest by the turn of events. Retail buyers have offered to receive pitches and schedule meetings with exhibitors. Several businesses offered to help dismantle booth displays and buy or distribute samples already shipped to the convention center.

Exhibitors are taking creative approaches to unveiling products digitally and hosting virtual expos. Those who already had arrived in Anaheim before the show was postponed expected to cultivate new connections in California.

“For a big food company, Expo is a ‘nice-to-have’ — an opportunity to network and see what new ideas exist in the marketplace,” said Joe Ens, co-CEO of HighKey, a maker of keto-friendly snacks. “A canceled Expo is simply one less trip to California and some time back on your calendar. For an emerging food company like HighKey, it’s the marquee opportunity to showcase our No. 1 status on Amazon to the entire industry and generate the momentum we need to accelerate our growth. We now need to re-create those engagements with our retail prospects through our sales partners, which is now the work to be done… Additionally, we set up a Virtual Expo West webpage to mitigate the loss of an ‘in person’ Expo with a Virtual Expo so we can spark a conversation with retailers.”

Brainiac Kids, San Francisco, planned to give away samples of its new applesauce intended for Expo West to local children.

”As a certified B-Corp we look to create benefit for the community, so what better way than through giving?” said Jonathan Wolfson, founder and CEO. “At this difficult time let’s find a way for parents to be able to stock up on shelf-stable Brainiac Kids products, for retailers to try the product for free, and for us to keep the momentum we would have enjoyed from a successful Expo.”