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Cannabis Spotlight: Mary Lou Burton

As part of our 420 coverage, here's a very timely interview with Mary Lou Burton, the founder of Cannabis Connex and the Cannabis Connex Conference. The CCC was (pre-COVID) an annual trade show that brought together national experts, entrepreneurs, and educators to discuss the latest in terms of cannabis and hemp regulation, branding, production, and more.

How Has COVID Forced The Cannabis Events Industry To Adapt?

I think that all events had a serious wake up call. Basically, our conference was the last one before they shut down (January 29-30, 2020). Moving forward, people have to be incredibly careful in this environment to plan something. Because if ours had been canceled, we would have had to refund $300,000.

Events are hard, you have to be passionate, you have to have a reason. And you have to have the money to do it, the sponsorships, and solid people. But I think that, more importantly, people are going to need to explore online, virtual events, more intimate events. I know that Tokativity had an in-person event, and people were so happy to be back together. But there's that risk factor of…an event that I know had been marketed, and now they may be postponing it again. There's only so many times you can postpone it. And you don't have control over it.

So doing as much as you can via social media and virtually, and even if you do have an in-person event, making sure that you document all the information and have it online, I think is critical.

How Can You Get Buy In From Event Sponsors?

In order to get people to sponsor, they have to believe in what you're doing, and there has to be a reason for them to participate, whether it's to increase sales. I mean, at one point, Nectar sponsored our conference, but they said, “We really don't think we're going to get business out of it. But we are supporting our community.” And I thought that was very commendable.

And it goes a lot further than telling a story. It's that in person connection, but also making sure that you under promise and over deliver. For example, when we created those $20,000 sponsor packages, we added that video to go along with it. And that was a huge closer. Like, hey, we'll create this video for you, as a part of being the sponsor.

And then making sure to follow up with everything that you included them in. I think that a lot of people get the money and they're out of there.

How Do You Assemble Your Organizational Dream Team?

You have to have a vision and a plan, and then somebody who can implement that, and keep it organized and inspect what you expect. Denise was my person who dealt with the negotiation, the contracts. I would get the resource, and say, “Here's what we're going to do.” And she'd follow up and put it in place, and then assign tasks and so forth. Because you can have visionaries and people throwing out ideas, but unless they're implemented and tracked…

A big part of it is, if you're going to spend money on marketing, which is a big chunk of an event, ask yourself, did it work? Let's figure out what was our return on investment or ROI? It was wonderful with the social media reports, how you were able to submit back to me..How many did we increase by?...and which posts were the best ones? I mean, being kind of old school, I wouldn't have known how important it was without connecting with you and The Hood Collective.

But then I was able, after establishing that relationship, to kind of pass it over to Denise to dot all the I's and cross the T's.

What Advice Do You Have For Someone Hosting Their First Event?

I find that the post show is as important as the pre show, because you have to do it while it's fresh. We would actually let our staff know ahead of time and remind them in an email to please write down everything as you're going through the trade show in your notes that could be done better, good things, bad things, and talk to clients to get feedback. And so we were able if there was anything critical that went on during the show, that could be reported back. I could even go over to that booth and work with that client before the show was over.

One of my recommendations, I call post-show when you get to the show, because everything better be done prior to the start, and then you need to leave about three to do's that are emergencies. You have to always expect it and look forward to it, and you try to predict problems as much as you can. But there are things that are out of your control, like there was a bomb threat at the Convention Center. So we couldn't get into set up our show.

As an event planner, I do believe I am responsible. No matter what happens, people paid me for a booth, and to be part of this show as a sponsor. And regardless of what happens, even if it was something not within your power, you have to fulfill your obligation to these people, or you will never have a show again.

So another part of post-show is literally, let's look not only at the bads, but let's look at the goods, the things that we could make better or improve or whatnot. I know, there were things with the video that you came back to me with. And you were so good about trying to get me to sit down and do stuff. And that's critical. I mean, as an owner, I should have been better at that. But when you’ve got 2,000 people coming at you, having someone like you, that was not aggressive, but making important suggestions…

The other thing we do is we tell our clients, “Just because they came to the show, it doesn't mean they're going to do business with you. You need to follow up. So here's what you should be doing.” We actually work with the clients ahead of time and say, “Okay, you want a bowl with a drawing? That's great, but how are you going to know what each of those people wanted? It's simple, but we did not provide chairs, because we don't want people sitting on their asses. And neither do companies want to pay for a booth and have people on their cellphone.

We would literally take pictures of the booths, where somebody was sitting on their cell phones. So when that client came back and said, “We didn't do anything at your show,” we could say “Well, would have been nice if the person working it would have gotten up and greeted somebody.”

How Has The Cannabis Events Industry Changed?

In Oregon, what we discovered our first three conferences was how crazy people were spending a lot of money to come and super excited because there really wasn't an event like ours that was really focused on local. Everybody loved going to Vegas, but they didn't narrow down on what were the rules and regulations in Oregon. What they did in California doesn't really apply to us or what they did in Washington. I mean, we can learn from other experiences, but I think it's critical for things to be on a local level. And to bring in events in new states like Ohio, are going to be huge. But I think it's maybe two or three shows in this industry before people think they don't need it anymore, or they run out of money, or they don't have time.

You've got farmers that need to come to the show and there was feedback that, hey, they're farming, they can't come on a weekday. And so then we extended hours. Those are things that you have to consider, that not everybody is lucky enough to be able to take a day off to go to a trade show. So you have to be accommodating.

And I think that's when we came up with the idea of taping the sessions and the videos. As a follow up, people were very appreciative of that, even though it was an extra expense in our budget. People couldn't make it to every educational panel, so that follow up was phenomenal.

So new states coming on board with conferences I think will be well attended. There's a lot of events out there that they can pretty much turnkey it. The hard part is finding the qualified people to attend. In the beginning of doing events in this industry, people came because they thought they were going to get a joint, you know, off the street. Our goal was always to get qualified people within the industry. We weren't consumer related.

There will continue to be challenges on whether you can display product at a show, which is crazy. The hurdles we had to go through with that. And I think in Oregon, social consumption and social events with consumption will hopefully be the next step.

About Mary Lou Burton:

Mary Lou has been applying her 28-year small business ownership and experience in the corporate event and hospitality industry to bringing the cannabis industry together with the Cannabis Collaborative Conference and the Oregon Growers Fair. Yes, she is the one that got recreational marijuana plants into the Oregon State Fair for public viewing and enabling them to learn more about this amazing plant resource. In working closely with regulators Mary Lou also had growers, with their flower displayed in their exhibit booths, at CCC last year. Finally, a business to business event where you could actually see and smell the product.

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