Text by: Heidi Kyser
It's satisfying to see your dreams come true; especially when that means they're coming true for a lot of other people too.
That's the case for George Jage, president of SFG Group, whose World Tea Expo has grown alongside the tea room owners, importers, wholesalers, blenders, growers and other players that have believed in the tea industry since way before tea was cool.
But the World Tea Expo's success - like that of the industry it serves - isn't just lucky coincidence. It's the result of countless hours of thought and hard work. Like the dedicated men and women of the tea business, who describe their endeavors as labors of love, the SFG Group has become the quintessential gathering place it is today by cultivating a knowledge of tea, building relationships and innovating, innovating, innovating.
Jage co-founded what is now the World Tea Expo in March 2003 because he and his partners believed in the tea industry.
"The most significant motivators for our creation of the World. Tea Expo in 2003 were the expected explosive growth and potential of the U.S. market, the lack of anyone facilitating a platform for the community to congregate, and the need for a marketplace for emerging companies to introduce their brands, products, and services," Jage said.
They were spot-on. The first Take Me 2 Tea Expo (as it was called then) featured 65 exhibiting companies and drew 1,200 attendees. This years World Tea Expo (as it was rebranded in 2005) showcased 284 exhibiting companies and attracted 4,632 participants.
The Expo has grown every year since it started, twice earning it an award as one of Tradeshow Week magazine's TSW Fastest 50, a competition which recognizes the most rapidly growing events in the United States and Canada. The first time the World Tea Expo was a Fastest 50 show was in 2006, This year, TSW will honor the Expo because of its compounded annual growth of 30 percent in attendance, 28 percent in exhibiting firms and 25 percent in exhibition space from 2005 through 2007.
"When we started this Expo, many people didn't believe the tea community could sustain its own trade event," Jage recalled. "Tradeshow Week's recognition truly belongs to the exhibitors and attendees who proved those naysayers wrong."
But what he is most proud of, as far as the show's growth goes, is the way it has readied and expanded around the globe. This year's show attracted tea industry professionals from 49 countries, including China, Germany, India, Japan, Korea and South Africa. "This is a testament to the strength and vitality of the tea industry in North America," Jage said.
It's all about the tea
As anyone who's been in the tea business for a while knows, insiders are a tough crowd. They've had to develop discerning tastes, negotiate with hard-nosed buyers and sellers from far-away places (sometimes in languages they don't know) and compete in a market place dominated by the 600-pound gorilla of coffee. They wouldn't accept an industry event that wasn't for real.
The SFG Group understood that. From the beginning, the show management team solicited the input of key industry stakeholders in developing educational and exhibitional programs. "The tea industry in the U.S. has been historically dominated by a few large companies with a narrow product offering of traditional commercial tea bags," Jage said. "As with the wine, beer and coffee markets, small entrepreneurial companies changed the marketplace though the introduction of specialty and premium products and services."
To keep their finger on the pulse of this entrepreneurship, SFG developed an exhibitor advisory committee that holds multiple meetings each year to talk about where the tea business is going and how to make sure the Expo reflects that.
Results of this collaboration can be seen in changes such as the addition of a new product showcase two years ago. Realizing that many companies were awaiting the Expo to debut their latest innovations — such as the 250 products making their first public appearance there this year - the World Tea Expo created special areas designed to spotlight them like works of art.
Kim Jage, SFG Group's vice president of sales
and marketing, pointed out that the Expo offers a unique chance for people involved in the tea trade to come together and see, taste, smell and learn about all the specialty, premium tea and tea-related products under one roof. The industry has seen extraordinary growth in recent years, so it's no wonder we have been inundated with new products from all tea categories."
An educational committee also brings together the leaders of the industry, who review and discuss hundreds of proposals by experts hoping to present their papers at the World Tea Expo conference. Only a fraction of them pass muster.
"It's our job to make sure that we only feature content that will directly help industry professionals grow their business," said Stacie Woods, conference director for SFG Group. "It's important that we know our target audience and what is having a current impact on their business."
Not resting on their laurels
Because of this commitment to quality content, in both products and education, key industry members have looked to the World Tea Expo to address their concerns and desires.
Discussions with industry leaders and innovators have led the SFG Group to many of its own innovations over the last couple years. Most notably, the 2008 Expo saw the launch of the World Tea Championship and World Tea News.
The Championship was designed to give the tea industry a much-needed system for selecting teas objectively, like the Robert Parker Ratings published in Wine Spectator magazine did for wine. SFG invited tea makers from all aver the world to submit both hot and cold teas - A panel of independent judges tasted and ranked the more than 200 teas that were sent from 30 countries around the world. Their scores were compiled into the first World Tea Ratings.
The judges also selected finalists, who went on to compete at the Expo in a live cupping by a second independent panel of tasters. Winners in each category received prizes at the Expo. Both the Ratings and the Championship winners were published in the World Tea Buyer's Guide, another first for the industry,
Angela Justice, sales manager for Adagio Teas, said, "I had been calking with former employers and friends about how we needed this for the tea industry: a place where we could be compared tea-to-tea on even standards. Without competitions or a third party judging them, it's very difficult for customers to tell how teas rank."
Unable to hide his enthusiasm, Jage described the inaugural Championship as "an undeniable success," adding, "It's time the tea industry broke with its constant comparison with its distant cousin, coffee, and assumed its rightful place alongside its closer kindred, wine."
At the same time, SFG was busy behind the scenes preparing to unveil World Tea News, which also debuted at the 2008 Expo. Another industry first, WTN is the only business-to-business news publication dedicated solely to tea. Jage envisions it as the primary source of research, information and current events for industry professionals around the world.
"World Tea Expo has established itself as the single most important event each year for anyone involved or interested in getting involved with the rapidly growing tea market in North America," Jage said.
The next World Tea Expo will take place at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, May 2-4, 2009.