Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meeting People at World Tea East

This weekend Sylvia and I attended World Tea East representing RateTea. It was wonderful...we got to sample countless teas, learn of new companies, and most exciting to me, I got to meet and talk face-to-face with a number of people that I normally only interact with over the internet. I could not possibly do justice to writing about all the people I met, and I do not want to leave anyone important out, as I inevitably would do, so I'm focusing on some interesting observations I had.

Feeling at Home:

I have attended numerous business-oriented events over the course of my adult life, but I had never before attended a trade show, so World Tea East was somewhat of a new experience for me. But it was still somewhat familiar. I have a large enough sample from my past experiences to say that I feel more at home in some types of business-oriented events than others. In this event, I felt very comfortable.

Clothing & Dress:

One interesting observation to me was that there was little conformity in terms of how people were dressed. There were a handful of people in suits, others walking around in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers or flip-flops, and all manners of outfits in between. Some outfits were drab and unobtrusive and others were colorful, creative, or elegant. Before attending the event I had the thought: "What do I want to wear?" and in retrospect I almost feel silly thinking this, having reflected on the various things I saw people wearing in the show, and how comfortable all of them looked. I probably would have been just fine with any of the outfits I wear in my daily life, and this realization produces a reassuring sense of feeling at home.

Diversity, but Where Are China and India?

There was also a fair amount of diversity in terms of people (and companies) of different national origins, giving good representation to the international tea community. One thing I noted, however, was a remarkable absence of Chinese and Indian people and companies. China and India, between the two of them, account for a huge portion of the world's tea production, as well as being the origin of numerous styles of tea and many of the world's highest-quality teas.

In my daily life, I meet and come into contact with a large portion of Chinese and Indians, in colleges and universities, and also Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans. The disproportionately tiny presence of Chinese and Indian people at the expo, in contrast to people from Kenya, Japan, or even Germany (which has a very active tea culture) was striking to me.

I suspect that the lack of a strong presence of people and companies from China and India at the show says something about the structure and organization of the tea industry, and perhaps the global economy as a whole, or at least the economies of these countries. Japanese tea companies have been directly expanding into the U.S.; a large number of these companies now have U.S. based operations. (Did you know Yamamotoyama now owns Stash Tea?) But the same does not seem to be true of Indian and Chinese companies.

There were plenty of Chinese and Indian teas being displayed around the exhibition hall, and many of the companies present owned Chinese subsidiaries or had offices in China, which they used to source their teas. I have not done any research to back this up, but I suspect that there are fewer Chinese and Indian companies with operations physically located in the U.S. This observation raises some very interesting questions. For one, I'm curious if it's actually true as I suspect it is, and for two, I'm curious about why (I have a few theories that popped into my mind), so I hope to follow up with a future post on this topic at some point. But for now, one more observation:

The Tea Industry vs. Corporate Culture:

Another thing that struck me when talking to a number of people about their businesses, and how they became involved in tea, was that there was a certain commonality in language that came through. I heard a lot of people talk about the corporate world, in the sense of: "I worked in the corporate world for X years before..." and so forth. Keep in mind, in the very literal sense, many of these people are still working for corporations, albeit much smaller ones, and a large number of them founded or own corporations.

The tea industry is an industry in which there are lots of small businesses, many, in fact, tiny businesses, run out of people's homes, or on the side. Many of the larger tea companies actually started off in this manner as well. (RateTea, incidentally, started a couple years ago as a side-project that I was only dedicating a few hours a week to.) I think this is yet another aspect of the tea industry that makes me feel comfortable there.

In Summary:

I'm very glad I attended World Tea East! It was immensely valuable on so many levels, and in addition, it was a lot of fun. Do you have any thoughts or comments on my observations?


  1. Dayi (the puerh giant) ventured to establish its market in German (probably the most promising puerh consuming country in western world) but failed (or withdrew). I guess one reason is, the operational cost in developed countries is so many times more than that in China, and the operation requires thorough understanding of western market culture (typical Chinese companies are very stingy at hiring western market experts, who are usually very expensive). Overall, I guess the reason is, it's easier to make money in China and too much risk in western market.

    But I think World Tea Expo in Las Vegas currently is already the top 2 favorite international tea events among some Chinese wholesalers. That's quite amazing considering the short history of this event.

  2. Yes...the higher relative cost of living and doing business would seem to explain why Chinese companies are much less likely than Japanese (or German) to expand into US-based operations.

    But why the presence of companies from Kenya, would they not also face similar barriers, or possibly greater ones due to even greater economic disparities? Or was that a peculiarity as this conference, or perhaps, a sign that the Kenyan specialty tea industry is blooming?

  3. Hi Alex, Just to let you know, this first show on the east coast was intended to be regional. The objective is and was to start small and grow. World Tea Expo, the main show in Las Vegas, has more than 6o countries represented. China exhibits in more than 25 booths, India, 15, Sri Lanka, 10... Kenya, Japan, Taiwan,(I'm sure I'm forgetting some) they are all there. If you are looking to feel the pulse of the tea industry in the US, I suggest making plans to attend World Tea Expo, June 1 - 3, 2012, Las Vegas Convention Center. If World Tea East is held again in Philly, I am sure it will be larger and more comprehensive but it took 10 years for Expo to get where it is today.

  4. That makes sense! Thanks for the info!