How To Do Business Development at SCA Expo

When your face shows up really big on the SCA Expo volunteer sign ...

When your face shows up really big on the SCA Expo volunteer sign ...

If you’re headed to the Global Specialty Coffee Expo in hopes of growing your new business, you’re going to the right place. Expo is the coffee industry’s biggest event of the year and the perfect opportunity to do biz dev, whether that’s finding customers, sourcing from new suppliers, starting conversations around potential partnerships or even getting feedback for projects you’re working on.

I did exactly that this year. We launched our company, Connect Roasters, in September 2016 and we were (and still are!) much too young and too small to consider getting a booth at Expo and being an exhibitor. However, we found that being a young company doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of Expo to grow your business. You just need to go in with a plan because the event itself can be a bit overwhelming, at least for first timers like I was.

Having recently finished my first Expo, here are five things I’d suggest doing to make the most of your time there:

Sign up to volunteer

Volunteering in the SCA’s classes and lectures is the single best decision you can make. Not only is it a built-in networking opportunity — you’ll be working side-by-side with experienced professionals in the industry — but volunteering a minimum number of hours (15 for SCA members; 20 for non-members) lowers the cost of the three-day Expo pass to $5. Not to mention the opportunity you have to supercharge your learning. Sign up for sessions you’d want to attend anyway and introduce yourself to as many instructors and students as possible. If you meet someone interesting, exchange business cards (bring some), give them a sample of your product (bring some of those, too*) and ask permission to stay in touch. And then make sure you do.

When you’re choosing when and where to volunteer, I’d recommend signing up to be a room host for at least one lecture. Choose the most relevant one, and you’ll get the opportunity to introduce the speaker and talk one-on-one with them before and after the lecture.

*Around Expo, there are a number of events that are looking for in-kind and cash sponsors, and donating some product is a great way to get some exposure. For example, there are no shortage of panel discussions. Find out if the organizers are putting together some kind of gift for the panelists and offer a sample of your product to be included.

Make friends with someone plugged into SCA

No one knows the ins and outs of Expo better than those who have been there before: instructors, long-time volunteers, industry veterans and SCA employees. So find someone in your network who is plugged into SCA and has attended Expo in the past, get introduced to them, then introduce yourself and let them know what your objectives are. They’ll point you in the right direction — who to reach out to, which classes to consider volunteering in — and bring some focus to your networking effort. They can also serve as a resource for you at the event if you have any questions.

(If you can’t seem to get introduced to someone like this, email me and I’d be happy to help.)

Line up meetings ahead of time

You’ll want to map out a plan of attack, and the best way to do this is to line up as many meetings as possible in the weeks leading up to Expo.

Some of the people you’ll want to meet will have booths on the trade show floor or be hosting on-site events like cuppings. You’ll just need to find out where they’re stationed and they’ll be pretty easy to meet.

Others will be involved in events off-site, or volunteering just like you, or just roaming around on one day. In that case, you’ll want to get a cell phone number so you can text and arrange a meetup on the fly.

In either case, reach out via email or Instagram in the weeks before Expo and introduce yourself. Mention any mutual contacts you have (maybe someone from SCA encouraged you to contact them?) and be clear and concise about what you’re looking for. Then ask to meet up whenever it’s convenient for them and plug them in around your volunteering schedule.

It’s also a great idea to let your online network know you’ll be attending and ask if anyone is interested in meeting up. Pin a tweet and post on Instagram that you’re going and you’d like to meet up. You might be surprised how many other people who are going to Expo for the same thing.

Skip the parties (if you want to)

Don’t feel pressure to attend the parties. I got this advice before Expo and I’m so glad I followed it.

Maybe someone who attends all the parties will tell you that all of the best networking opportunities are there. And maybe they’re right. But I know that I walked away from Expo with too many new connections to count, without going to the parties, and woke up most mornings feeling pretty energized.

I suggest going for dinner or drinks with a smaller group of people will be a lot more fruitful.

Pace yourself

A veteran of 10+ Expos warned me that it could be exhausting — and he was right. Maybe it was not sleeping in my own bed, or a little jet lag, or dehydration, or the fact that I ate three consecutive nights (and four out of five) at Italian Family Pizza. Whatever it was, Expo threw me for a bit of a loop. I had a headache for about two and a half days, and by the final afternoon, I had hit a wall that forced me to take a nap before heading out to a quiet dinner by myself. And that was without going to any of the parties.

So do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Next year, I’ll drink more water, spend a bit more money to upgrade my Airbnb experience (so I’m not on an air mattress for an entire week) and consider eating pizza for only 50 percent of my dinners.

Finally, here’s a short list of things to bring to Expo:

  1. Business cards
  2. Backpack for all the swag
  3. Pen + notebook
  4. Cell phone charge + external battery
  5. Comfortable shoes
  6. Water bottle
  7. An open mind and a smile

Let me know if you think there’s anything missing from this list!

Caleb Benoit is the founder of Connect Roasters, a mission-based coffee company in Illinois. He can be reached at caleb@connectroasters.com.