Viva Las Vegas: My Experience at the 2023 World Tea Expo
Hey, friends! This comes later than I anticipated due to graduation and finals taking longer than expected (hooray for being busy with writing a literal thesis for my degree), but here it is- my World Tea Expo write-up and photo journal.
This past March I was able to attend the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, for my second time (you can read last year's write-up here). Compared to last year's, this year's expo was significantly larger and more vibrant. In fact, the expo mentioned that they had a reach of 11,000 individuals total! This definitely reflects that the expo coordinators themselves are doing something really quite magical with this event, and I can't wait to see how it continues to grow and improve with each year. As a heads-up, because the expo was so much larger than last year, it was impossible for me to photograph every booth; that being said, I included as many photos as possible here, with the remainder being posted on my Instagram. So, without further ado, let's get into this recap.
Monday, March 27th, 2023:
Today marked the first official day of the expo, during which you could attend the Tea Business Incubator as well as some additional ticketed events, plus the opening night welcome party. First thing that morning, I went and picked up my badge, along with the absolutely amazing Ana (@ana.likes.tea), Chase and Nicole, (@davidsteashareaday), and Cody (@theoolongdrunk). Along the way, I ran into the amazing Jeff (@its_always_tea_oclock) and Margaret (@gatorgosia). We all attended the Business Incubator, which was highly informative to anyone who is planning on starting a tea business or is currently wanting to expand an existing business. At the incubator, I also ran into the amazing TeaJTea, who are some of the kindest and sweetest tea people out there. They honestly were both so sweet, so cool, and so great to meet and hang with, and discussing Vietnamese teas really showed Thuy's passion for sourcing and exposing people to high-quality teas. Particularly interesting were Jeni Dodd's session on the legal side and Cody's presentation on banking and business. I felt like I learned a lot about navigating the current marketplace as well as what to do when it comes to dealing with finances at a larger scale for a business.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2023:
Today was the first day of the expo hall itself being open. Now, let's start with the biggest thing that happened today. During the course of the expo hall, several Clark County Health Inspectors showed up, making their rounds through the expo hall and shutting down a significant number of the booths on the tea side. I spoke to the Inspectors as well as the vendors impacted to get an idea of what was going on as well as how it was eventually resolved. From the vendors (who will remain anonymous), they mentioned that with such a high cost for a booth at the expo (exact booth cost is withheld to further protect identities), one would expect the health codes to be mentioned in the application process or the proper equipment to be provided to the vendors. The health inspectors mentioned that a significant number of booths they visited were lacking both a.) a proper handwashing station and b.) sanitizing wipes as well as proper waste disposals at each booth, meaning that until these were fixed, the tastings had to be shut down. So, even if a vendor had gloves and hand sanitizer as well as a waste bucket, they were still shut down due to that handwashing issue. Now, hand washing stations were able to be purchased in advance, at a cost of $75 per unit plus a $35 delivery fee, and included a water dispenser, 2.5 gallons of hot water, 1 roll of paper towels, hand soap, a disposable bucket, and 100 professional-grade sanitizing wipes . This information *is* available on the WTE website, as are the policies for sampling food and beverages, so this definitely could've been an issue on the vendor side of things rather than the expo themselves. Having been involved in organizing expos myself, I can completely understand this being an issue of vendors not being prepared, and then being angry with the expo for an issue they themselves created by not reading the Vendor resources page.
Understandably, the vendors impacted were furious at having their samplings temporarily shuttered, as the samplings are arguably the best way for a vendor at the expo to get new business, and the health inspectors were highly concerned by what they saw as a lack of oversight from the expo itself. Indeed, when asked at the end of the day what the expo had done to remedy the issue, several vendors had mentioned that in essence, the expo officials had told them to "fix this yourself" or they wouldn't be allowed back next year, placing the burden on the exhibitors themselves. I reached out to the expo for an official statement, but received no response. Should they release an official statement to me, this will be updated to reflect that. Regardless, for such a large event, especially a food and beverage-oriented event, having this occur left a sour taste in many vendors' mouths.
Part of me believes that because the expo was so much larger than last year, logistically it was more challenging to get everything 100% perfect. To the expo's credit, they put on an amazing expo overall and my experience was overwhelmingly positive, so it really is possible that because it was so much larger than last year, officials were stretched thinner and had less time to devote to individual issues. After all, the expo had a reach of 11,000 individuals, which is absolutely amazing compared to last year. Dealing with such a large volume of foot traffic would certainly mean there will be kinks in the event, but those were ironed out and solved relatively quickly, with tastings resuming about an hour after being shut down. It's also entirely possible that all of these booths impacted simply didn't read the resources page on the WTE website, creating their own problems. Either way, it is an issue that merits noting, since tastings are an integral part of a tea expo.
So, now that that's out of the way, let's get back into the positives of this fun day (because the expo itself was a blast overall). The expo this year was significantly larger, which made navigating the booths and trying the teas a fun challenge. After making my way to the tea bar to collect my souvenir tasting cup (at which I had their powdered genmaicha matcha, powdered hojicha, and a pina colada tisane), Ana and I made our way to the booths. Along the way, we also ran into AJ (AJP Films). The first booth we stopped at was Tea Tell Truth, as they were offering a tasting of their 2009 bingdao sheng puerh. Honestly, I spent most of my time at the expo coming back to their booth- having high-quality puerh at the expo this year was honestly an absolute treat. Other highlights included Camelot Tea Company, who offer fantasy and RPG-themed blends. Their campaign-map-themed banner was honestly such a great sight to my nerdy heart. I also stopped by Nepal Tea and tasted their Kumari Gold, as well as Sherpa Chai, trying all of their chai blends and iced chai.
Next on the list was JingWei Fu Tea- I had to stop here. I'm a massive fan of fu cha and those wonderful little golden flowers (jin hua- "eurotium cristatum"), so seeing fu cha at the expo really made my tea nerd heart flutter. Their sample was a classic, smooth and sweet fu cha, and they had bricks for purchase, as well as a display with a magnifying glass and ring light to see the jin hua (golden flowers). Also visited were Sugimoto (who I absolutely love, Noli was doing a fancier tasting similar to last year as well, and it was great catching up with the Sugimoto representatives and tasting their cold-brewed homare sencha) and ORTea, who flew here from China to exhibit. Their selection was gorgeous, showing off each of the types of tea they offered. They were some of the sweetest people as well, being super friendly and informative. The American Yerba Maté Association had a booth as well, which had some of the smoothest, most amazing maté I've ever had. Milk+T had a lovely boba booth and Seven Tea House had a gorgeous display of their offerings.
We then made our way over to the Bar and Restaurant expo side, needing snacks; we promptly found a booth offering a freshly carved meat station as well as the coveted Japanese food and drink section. The miso ramen, tempura chicken, rice crackers, sushi, edamame, pickled vegetables, etc. were all so phenomenally tasty and hit the spot after a day of drinking tea.
At the end of the first day, I ran into So Han (West China Tea/Tea House Ghost), Jesse (Jesse's Teahouse), Leo (Tea And Whisk) and Shunan (Tea Drunk), which was absolutely amazing. All 3 of them are such massively influential tea people, all of whom have definitely left their marks on the tea community and even influenced me to join the world of tea in the first place. I definitely fan-girled at how awesome they were to meet. I also met the wonderful team of Tezumi, who specialize in Japanese tea and teaware. After that, we all made our way over to the expo stage to cheer on So Han, who had been nominated for an award. This event was the 2023 "Best Of" awards ceremony, and So Han ended up winning the award for Favorite Tea-Focused YouTube channel for his work as TeaHouseGhost.
Later that night, Ana, Cody, Chase, Nicole, Jeff, Margaret, and I met up at Margaret's hotel room at the Cosmopolitan and had a lovely little tea-and-pizza party together while watching the fountains at the Bellagio Hotel, which made for a really unforgettable moment. They're all such wonderful humans and I think that's really what I love most about the expo: making genuine, lasting connections around tea with individuals who are passionate and extremely knowledgeable in the industry/community, be they business related or not.
Wednesday, March 29th, 2023:
Today was the second and final day of the expo hall. Everything went smoothly and honestly, today seemed busier. The amount of foot traffic on the tea side had increased compared to yesterday, which was interesting. I spoke with a few Bar and Restaurant expo attendees who said they were unaware of the World Tea Expo until this day, but that now that they'd found it, they were very excited. They mentioned that it felt more relaxed and that they loved the tea bar. I had similar comments and interactions last year, so it was great hearing that again. It seems like the expo itself is a great place to introduce people to the world of tea and its nuances without gatekeeping the industry or judging due to a lack of exposure to tea. Conversely, as a tea expo attendee, it was fun going to the Bar and Restaurant side and exploring the different alcoholic beverages and snacks, as well as the Japanese food and drink section. (As a side note, the guava pulque and the original pulque from Penca Larga USA was delicious and refreshing, and I wish I could find it here in Utah. Seeing Tajin there and trying their fruit bowls as well as their drinks was quite amazing. I love tajin on watermelon with a bit of lime in the summer, so seeing both of these Mexican companies represented at the expo was honestly a real treat!)
Today, Ana and I walked around the expo and explored the remainder of the booths we'd missed yesterday. Ana was my "official tea expo buddy," and I couldn't have asked for a better person to explore with! She truly is the best expo buddy out there. During this, we also met up with Javier of Mochi's Tea Company and spent a bit of the time exploring the booths with him. He also is definitely someone I'm glad I met- he's incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about tea and it was lovely hanging with him. We also bumped into Phil (World Tea House). We visited Flavor Waves and tried their root beer float tea, as well as SerendipiTea, trying their lemon drop tea. Both were quite enjoyable! After that, we hit up Urban Tea Party and tried their delicious concentrates (seriously, they're quite magical) as well as Shen Xian Tea Company, a company offering Taiwanese oolongs. Shen Xian had a neat nitro-brewed oriental beauty oolong and dong ding oolong that were refreshing and fun to watch as they were poured. They also had authentic vintage yixing pots on display, a lovely collection of teaware, and one of my favorite roasted oolongs that I've yet tried. Their ruby 18 black was phenomenal too. Aiya Matcha also was present, sampling a few different types of their teas, like their matchas and hojicha lattes.
We also stopped by ITI to taste their flavored drinks as well as one of my favorites I tried during the expo- a Columbian white tea! I had no clue Columbia grew tea, so tasting a Columbian white tea was fascinating. It was earthy and sweet, almost like a candied sweet potato. ITI also had one of the smoothest matchas I've ever tasted. We stopped by Tea Tell Truth again for a taste of their 2009 Ban Zhang puerh, where we all promptly got tea drunk (with TeaJTea coming to the rescue and offering us all rice cakes and oranges- such amazing people!). Kazi Yetu, a Tanzanian tea company, also had lovely teas to sample. Really, I don't think I had a tea I didn't enjoy at the expo!
As we wandered, tea drunk, through the booths, we stumbled upon a few other noteworthy vendors: Grand Crew (whose oolongs were quite delightful), Eastern Elm Teaware, Felicity Loft (an Alaskan tea company!), Forlife (to see their rainbow wall of teaware), Harney And Sons (whose sample of the Coronation blend of darjeeling was sublime) and Dethlefsen and Balk.
When the expo ended, Ana, Javier, Chase, Nicole and myself all relaxed and took photos in front of the schedule. It was a rainy day in Vegas (which, being from Utah, I absolutely loved) so we waited a bit to see if the rain would stop before leaving (it didn't). At the end of the day, Ana, Chase, Nicole and I went over to Caesars Palace to have a fun night together, stopping at the Brahma Shrine, since I, as an anthropology nerd, had to see it. It's located near Hell's Kitchen, so of course we took pics there, too. We ended this night with Chase’s annual tradition of having someone pick in roulette, where he would essentially bet $100. I was the unlucky person picked, and of course in true Vegas fashion, we lost that money.
And of course, here are the obligatory expo haul pictures. After 2 days of the expo, I had received quite a lot of tea and other goodies, or I had purchased some on the second day from the vendors, pictured below. I definitely made a lot of great connections and got a stack of about 55 business cards from the tea side alone, which was quite impressive compared to last year.
Overall, the expo was amazing. Aside from the small hiccup of not having tastings for about an hour, everything was smooth and so much busier than last year. Any issues I noticed were quickly solved and the expo team worked their hardest to put on a great event. Additionally, the expo sessions were entertaining and informative, as were the events throughout the day at the expo, like the "Best Of" awards. My biggest feedback for the expo coordinators would be to embrace bloggers more, as compared to last year, there was no event for bloggers. Bloggers play a large role in the tea community and should be more included. Other than that, the expo itself surprised me with how large it was this year as well as the quality of the events. They certainly listened to our feedback last year and it was amazing seeing just how large the tea community can be. At the end of the day, the expo had some minor hiccups that were quickly remedied, making for an overall enjoyable experience.
To me, the World Tea Expo represents the best aspect of tea: community. It serves as a wonderful event where many connections and friendships are made around tea, acting as a vector to further the reach tea has in North America. Having attended last year, it was amazing seeing just how much it has grown this year, which to me, signals that the tea industry is not only recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s thriving and growing. I’m excited to see what the future holds as it continues to grow and look forward to seeing you all there again next March for the 2024 expo!