MJ Unpacked Organizers Reveal the Secret to Creating Epic Cannabis Events
By Gregory Frye
Cannabis leaders, stakeholders, and entrepreneurs will gather in Las Vegas this week for the next MJ Unpacked on Sept 28-30, 2022.
The event, which debuted in Las Vegas last year, has already distinguished itself as one of the top events in the industry.
What makes MJ Unpacked so special? The answer to that question starts with its organizers.
MJ Unpacked was founded by Jage Media – George Jage, former president of MJBizDaily/MJBizCon and CEO of Dope Media, and Kim Jage, former EVP & CMO of World Tea Media.
The Bluntness sat down with George and Kim a few months ago to discuss the spirit of MJ Unpacked, how to get the most out of the event, and why pay-to-play speakers aren’t such a hot idea.
The Bluntness: What’s the story behind the name MJ Unpacked?
Kim Jage: I thought of it while I was in the shower. Seriously, it’s during daily routines that my mind gets to wander, and without the stress of needing to name our brand, one popped up.
While George and I were developing our business plan, we knew that there were a plethora of events for cannabis. Most are named similarly, and even look and feel the same. We wanted to create an event that was disruptive, purposeful and reimagined. I needed a unique name.
During my research, I kept hearing cannabis brand and retail executives talk about the need to unpack data and make it useful for their businesses. We partnered with the analytics firm, BDSA, to help us with just that. But, our event is also about unpacking products – showing them off and sharing them beyond state borders. It’s about unpacking the complexities of the industry. So when the name MJ Unpacked popped up, I ran with it.
TB: Could you talk about how MJ Unpacked stands out among events in the cannabis industry?
George Jage: Honestly, I think the most fundamental difference is our entire team understands that we are in the hospitality industry, not the real estate business – we don't just sell space. While we produce events, we don’t approach this with the goal of selling another booth and another registration ticket. We take the time to understand the objectives of our customers and make sure we can deliver on their needs. Then execute on what we promise.
But more importantly, MJ Unpacked is designed and built to support the brands and the retailers, specifically the independent operators who have been underserved by the current events in the space.
All the existing national shows are supply-side focused with little to no brand participation and largely unqualified audiences. That is where we truly differentiate – by qualifying every attendee to be a brand or retail executive so everyone in the room is a decision-maker.
One of my favorite moments from the last event was when an exhibitor came running up to tell me that ‘every conversation [she] had was juicy’.
There are a lot of layers to our event that I think differentiate us and why our event has become so well known in such a short time.
We mail badges because we hate waiting in line too. We offer innovative, cost-effective, turnkey exhibit options because we know most cannabis companies don’t have corporate event departments, so we do the work for them. We provide tons of soft seating because we know having conversations lead to deals, not walking aisles, and having your badge scanned.
And we make it fun! All the way from having a gong to bang when you get a deal done to foosball tables, a bar, and lounge music. But, at the center of it all remains our focus to support the success of the true vanguard of our industry who are engaging with the consumers every day…. the brands and retailers.
TB: The previous MJ Unpacked was in NYC. Any thoughts on the emerging adult-use market in New York?
GJ: Our goal is to establish MJ Unpacked as a bicoastal, biannual show with events in New York and Las Vegas every year. Keep in mind that we had to book our venues during the pandemic when the Hilton in NY was shut down and events were banned in Las Vegas. When I finally went to the Mandalay Bay to do a site walk-through, the convention team couldn’t open the rooms because the batteries on the room locks were dead.
We would have loved it if New York had moved through the regulatory process quicker and was an active adult-use market by this May, but the timing may have worked out perfectly.
New York is and will be one of the most important markets to open in the US. Sure, California is a huge market, but six years in and it is a mess by most accounts.
New York is taking some very powerful and thoughtful measures to learn from the unforeseen errors in other markets' regulatory structures. They are prioritizing social equity and putting the money up to make it happen. They are pre-seeding the market with supply to avoid the glut and price gouging that often follow a market launch. We believe that New York will have more influence to move us over the top on a federal level than any other state previously.
TB: Any exciting metrics or tidbits from MJ Unpacked last year?
KJ: At our inaugural event – New York will be our second – 42 percent of our delegates were retailers or verticals, 20 percent were brands, 13 percent were investors or fund managers, 4 percent were press and 3 percent were distributors. The balance was a handful of ancillary companies that exhibited.
We had over 2,500 in attendance and anticipate a similar delegation for New York.
When you bring a highly qualified group of peers together that span the country, magic happens. Deals got done. Companies that were looking for capital found investor partners. Licensing deals that started at MJ Unpacked have come to fruition.
People that felt isolated and alone in their challenges connected with someone else that does their same job in a different state and found solutions. In 15 years of launching events, I’ve never experienced such a successful debut.
TB: What can you say about the nuances of successful event planning in cannabis?
GJ: It all comes down to execution. I’ve been a student of the game for 30 years and the last nine in cannabis. I have seen far too many events come to market and over promise and underdeliver. Or forget that they are in business to be of service and not take an approach that it is their sandbox and you're lucky to be a part of it.
The most important thing is to focus and understand your target audience at a deep level. It requires listening to their concerns, pain points and challenges while finding creative solutions that meet those needs.
It is also important to maintain the integrity of the event’s content and not sell your stage to the highest bidder which is a mistake I see made too often. The most valuable learning is almost always peer-to-peer and hearing from someone who has walked in your shoes or faced similar challenges as you will be the most valuable. It is rarely a supplier who is subtly trying to sell you their services.
But it is fundamentally about creating an experience. I had an epiphany a few months back that our job can be explained as spending an entire year thinking through every detail and interaction that will happen over a three-day period.
TB: Can you talk about the target audience for MJ Unpacked and how they can make the most out of the event?
KJ: As George mentioned, our target audience is independent operators. The mom-and-pops, as they say. They’re the innovators and operate successful businesses despite punitive tax codes, changing regulatory structures, and lack of access to capital. Their success is fueled by their love of the plant.
The MSOs are a part of the natural evolution of our industry, and they will successfully coexist with independent operators.
Federal legalization is an inevitability. When that happens, the alcohol and tobacco industries will flood in with massive amounts of capital and operational efficiency that could wipe out many of the companies and people on whose backs this industry was built.
Legal cannabis can be transformational to society and to people. If we let the thought leadership of our industry go the way of a handful of corporate behemoths, that would be a loss for us all.
We are a small family business ourselves. We hope that our industry spawns thousands of millionaires and not just a handful of billionaires. MJ Unpacked supports that idea and provides the space and environment for independent operators to grow.
Need a little more Bluntness in your life? Subscribe for our newsletter to stay in the loop.