High Times Cannabis Cup: When It Comes to Branding, Humboldt Lost This Round
This article first appeared in a new publication devoted to cannabis, the Emerald Tribune. (Follow them on Facebook for more cannabis news.) The article is reprinted here with their gracious permission.
High Times Cannabis Cup Nor Cal featured hundreds of vendors and entertained thousands of guests. It was a snapshot of the national cannabis scene right now, and previewed things to come for the industry.
The first thing that struck me as I walked up to the fairgrounds was the absence of a huge line to get in. There was a line, of course, but nothing compared to the horde of people waiting for Emerald Cup.
We weren’t quite sure where the line to enter ended and the will-call line began, so our group walked towards the gate. We passed through a lackadaisical bag-check before we entered without showing our tickets.
The first thing to greet us was a handful of scantily clad young ladies. Although the presence of these beautiful young ladies undoubtedly boosted both morale and sales, it did highlight the twinge of awkwardness around the “Medical” aspect of the “Medical Cup.”
To make things worse, the next thing we came across were dense, long, lines of people waiting to get 215 Medical Recommendations. While the seminars and many vendors lay outside of the 215 area, the vast majority of the event was in the smoking section.
“Attendees came predominantly from Central and Southern California.”
Long, thin, black, CO2 oil pens seemed like the weapon of choice at this cup. Extracts and value-added secondary manufacturing products loomed large over meager flower displays. It felt a little bit like a trim and shake show, since extracts and infused products were so dominant.
One vendor explained this as due to market pressure from High Times’ demographic. They explained that attendees came predominantly from Central and Southern California. These markets have a greater taste for oil and vape cartridges than for bud and flower. I was surprised to hear this at the Nor Cal Cup.
Security oscillated between negligent and strident. Our team was able to enter and re-enter the event on three separate occasions without showing our tickets to a single soul. The entrance to the 215 area was frequently unsupervised. Meanwhile, the VIP and Super VIP barns were jealously guarded by most security personnel.
“There didn’t appear to be any good reason to congregate in the VIP area”
High Times decided to segregate their customers by willingness to pay, separating the “Very Important” and the “Super Very Important” from the merely “General.”
Two main buildings and their courtyards were sectioned off for the exclusive use of VIP. During the Emerald Cup, these massive exposition barns hosted expert panel discussions. High Times filled them with ski ball tables and streamers.
One kind security guard gave us access to the VIP barn. There were a few dozen people inside. Perks included lounge chairs, a live DJ, mini water bottles, and a variety of table games.
“I was surprised to hear that vendors were also held to a hierarchy of pay.”
Later, when I confidently walked into the same building from a different entrance, the young woman working security at that door screamed at me from across the barn, ejecting me and directing me to the general admittance bathrooms.
There didn’t appear to be any good reason to congregate in the VIP area, unless you were in desperate need of some shade. If you came to socialize with other stoners, most of them were outside, somewhere in the maze of vendors. If you wanted to play some foosball and feel exclusive, then perhaps you would have been satisfied. Of course, if you wanted to attend the concerts, you had no choice but to pay for VIP tickets.
We were utterly rejected at the entrance to the Super VIP area. Our white photo wristbands were insufficient. We lacked any regular entry wristbands, since nobody ever checked our tickets at the door.
I was surprised to hear that vendors were also held to a hierarchy of pay. VIP vendors paid more for preferential access to parking, unloading, and other back-end functions.
“The atmosphere was distinctly customer-facing, and the emphasis was on buying and selling.”
Was the $420 Super VIP weekend pass really 367% more awesome than the $90 general experience? Without seeing the concerts and the gift bags, it’s hard to say. Outside of the VIP Barns, there were few opportunities for free fun and entertainment.
Compared to other cannabis festivals, freebies and giveaways were hard to come by. The atmosphere was distinctly customer-facing, and the emphasis was on buying and selling. Vendors offering freebies attracted long lines with bold advertising.
For all the drawbacks of this event, there were also plenty of successes that made it fun. There was tons of cool signage, electric trees, and other perfect areas for photo ops and selfies. Aside from some lapses in security, the event was well-organized.
“It felt like stepping into an issue of High Times Magazine come to life.”
Growers and other supply-side folks got a chance to check out tons of niche new trade show brands. There were electric trimming knives, sustainable packaging for retail, and millions of new ways to cure your product.
Inside the massive 215 area, popup tents seemed to stretch on for miles. It felt like stepping into an issue of High Times Magazine come to life. For many of the biggest brands, the salespeople were not involved in the business, and could not answer any tough questions about the company. Real Humboldt companies sent authentic representation.
High-gloss big brands got sunny grassy outdoor booths located close to entrances. Smaller and newer companies were relegated to the dusty corners of the cow barn, or the far reaches of the field. Compared to brands from LA and the Bay Area, Humboldt and the Emerald Triangle were poorly represented.
As usual, there were a handful of companies with Humboldt in their name, who were unable to explain their connection to our region. The biggest and most eye-catching example was Humboldt County Wholesale.
Emerald Triangle brands will have to accept the inevitable loss of market space if they don’t make their presence known to this audience. When it comes to branding, Humboldt lost this round. Does our future lie in sending our commodity elsewhere, for SoCal gangsters and Bay Area techies to market to their niche segment?
The High Times Cannabis Cup Nor Cal was a preview of what’s to come for the industry. The biggest brands get the best seat at the table. Cannabis sativa is completely commodified and monetized down to the last digit. Music and culture is divorced from cannabis. SoCal culture creeps north.