Grab your blazer and your khakis because I’m going to take you through my time with the gathering of cannabis suits that is the Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference (BCCC/ Benzinga for short).
The BCCC is hosted by Benzinga, a “financial media outlet that empowers investors with unique high-quality content.” While Benzinga covers general market news, they also have a section dedicated to, you guessed it, cannabis. Part of their cannabis coverage includes hosting cannabis conferences. In 2022 Benzinga hosted cannabis conferences in Miami and Chicago. I’m a little upset that I missed the Miami conference – I love any excuse to go to the beach and sip tropical cocktails - but I was able to attend their conference in Chicago, which unfortunately did not involve either a beach or tropical cocktails. Oh well.
A number of people would tell you that BCCC is a gathering of suits. I would also tell you that it’s a gathering of suits, but as I wrote in Honeysuckle, suits aren’t a bad thing. Maybe I’m a suit apologist. In fact, as much as I want to make fun of the conference for all the suits, it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended - and I’m not even getting paid to say that.
Before I get into a play-by-play of the conference, I want to dispel the notion that only rich people can attend a conference like BCCC. For admission to the event, I got a general admission pass, but you can bet that I didn’t pay full price for it. There were so many promotions and discount codes available leading up to the conference that I took full advantage of. NYC to Chicago flights are relatively cheap, but I know someone that took a bus from the tristate area to Chicago to save some money (Respect). I didn’t stay at the conference hotel because I don’t want to spend $600 a night for a place to rest my head. Instead, I found a hotel within four blocks for a quarter of the cost and lived to tell the tale.
Arrival, Exploring Chicago, and the Benzinga Cannabis Awards
With my blazers in my suitcase, I woke up at an ungodly hour to catch my flight. With so many flights experiencing delays, I try to fly out first thing in the morning when I travel. Thankfully I fell asleep on the plane. I knew the next few days would be jam packed.
I had a few hours to kill before my first event, a happy hour with an investor group, and then the official Benzinga Cannabis award show, so I went to a dispensary within walking distance from my hotel. This is a cannabis conference after all, and showing up to a cannabis conference without any cannabis is in poor form IMO. After crying about the prices the dispensary was charging, I left with a disposable vape, some pre-rolls, some gummies, and a hole in my pocket.
I see Benzinga’s conference as having two parts. The first part is general education with panels and keynotes. The second is investor acquisition, which is a fancy way to say companies looking for cash and investors looking to park their cash.
The happy hour I went to before the award show was hosted by investment groups Merida Capital and Sharp Capital, showcasing their portfolio companies that are looking to raise money. It was also co-sponsored by the Canadian Securities Exchange, the world’s first national stock exchange to list publicly-traded cannabis companies (yes, other exchanges do so now, but the CSE broke the glass ceiling). It was a relaxed atmosphere and I know this because the dress code for men was a collared shirt instead of a suit. Keeping it casual!
On to the Benzinga Cannabis Awards. I was not awarded or nominated for anything and yeah, I’m a little salty about it. But I went to the show to cheer on my friends and boo my enemies.
The award show was at the Palmer House, the official $600 a night hotel that I mentioned earlier. The hotel was built in 1873 and is, bluntly, freaking beautiful. It was also beautiful that as soon as I walked into the award show room I was greeted with a glass of wine. Don’t mind if I do!
Awards are funny in that they mean nothing and something at the same time. The good thing is that there were no winner's speeches, so I didn’t have to listen to any insufferable speeches about how we’re all in this together and that if we work hard we too can get a cannabis award. The highest award, pun intended, went to the gummy lady herself, Nancy Whiteman of Wana Brands. Nancy, I love your gummies and can’t wait to see them in NYC.
After the awards, I found a group of old and new friends smoking outside and joined them for some casual networking before calling it a night.
Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference Day #1
One of the good things about Benzinga conferences is that they feed you breakfast AND lunch and have a constant supply of water and coffee. Benzinga is like a nice Jewish mother in that way. It felt nice to know that most of my meals were taken care of. One less thing to think about.
The conference had four main areas. The investor stage was for companies looking to raise and investors looking to invest (I guess that makes sense). The main stage was used for panels and keynotes. The conference also had private meeting rooms that were reserved by people that aren’t me. Finally, the exhibit floor had around 30 companies that were mostly service based. Lawyers, consultants, staffing, oh my. High-profile brands such as Ricky Williams’s Highsman and Jay-Z’s The Parent Company shared the space with longtime leaders like Cresco Labs, Simply Pure, and Greenlane. Meanwhile, advisory, legal and other ancillary business needs were well represented by companies including Skip Intro Advisors, LeafLink, Hoodie Analytics, SevenPoint Interiors and more.
I like my exhibit halls with a little energy and spunk. Companies need to put a bit more effort into their exhibits if they want to attract people. And stop giving out bad swag. Give me something I can actually use. I do want to shout out to the ladies at Women Grow for having the most lively booth in the exhibit hall. They had multiple brands stationed at their booth like Her Highness, Budwell, and My Bud Vase to name a few.
Speaking of ladies (sup, you single?,) they sadly didn’t have a lot of representation at the conference. Neither did any minority group when I think about it. To Benzinga’s credit, there weren’t too many white man-only panels and they did have a number of minority people on stage. The bar is low, but they reached it.
I didn’t go to too many panels; I spent most of the day running into people and taking meetings, most of them unplanned. I will say being more flexible than a gymnast at this type of event will create more opportunities. Hell, I met people in the elevator, and in that lone minute I came out with a new connection and a new meeting. I got my elevator pitch down.
I went to a panel titled “How Brands Scale Outside of the MSO Structure,” that I really enjoyed. Moderated by Cy Scott (Headset), the panel had Luke Anderson (Cann), Erin Gore (Garden Society), Madison Fiore (Mattio + Fiore) and Nancy Whiteman (Wana). As someone who wants to scale outside of the MSO structure, this panel spoke to me.
Another highlight of mine (pun intended) was watching Kim Rivers of Trulieve being interviewed by David Biggs of Yahoo Finance. She spoke about Trulieve’s expansion and noted that she wanted to see more women in the audience. Being able to directly hear from the CEO of one of the largest cannabis corporations in the world is the type of access the cannabis professional in me dreams of. That’s why I go to these types of conferences. To access the people I wouldn’t normally access along with their learnings.
I’ve learned that you never know what to expect at cannabis conferences and this conference had plenty of surprises. For example, I did not expect Mike Tyson and Ric Flair to light up on stage during their Tyson 2.0 panel. The crowd went wild as if Mike landed a KO with a mean right hook. The panel was moderated by Debra Borchardt of Green Market Report, and Tyson 2.0 co-founder Chad Bronstein and Chief Legal Officer Nicole Cosby were also present to provide commentary on the brand’s development. Mike and Ric are characters and their panel was a fun way to end the panel portion of the day.
After Tyson 2.0 was a cocktail hour sponsored by Centri Business Consulting. I enjoyed a beer and then met up with some MBA buddies for dinner.
I missed, purposefully, the big official party hosted by Benzinga with a bunch of celebrities. It was sponsored by Tyson 2.0, and hosted at Tao. Big clubs and I are not friends. I hope it was fun for the people that attended, but overpaying for drinks and not being able to hear myself talk sound like the opposite of fun.
Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference Day #2
Maybe people were hungover from the party the night before or flew out already, but the last day of the conference seemed like a ghost town compared to the first day. I think this made for more impactful conversations and I had a little more personal space, so I wasn’t complaining.
I caught a few panels, most of them ending up a blur, but spent most of the day running around again trying to expose my brand to as many people as possible. One panel that I missed that I really wanted to go to was titled “Challenger Brands: Growing Market Share through consumer awareness.” The brands showcased were binske, Khalifa Kush, Miss Grass, and Timeless Refinery. PR maven Rosie Mattio moderated and I’m bummed to have missed it.
I met a ton of people and most of them were pretty high up at their respective companies. These are people that are the decision makers and I want to commend Benzinga for putting them all together.
The highlight of the last day for me was a panel of former NFL and NBA players that have transitioned into the cannabis industry and created their own brands. I went to the University of Texas for my undergrad and drank the college football Kool-aid. Hook ‘em horns, Ricky Williams! Joined by Ricky (Highsman) was Al Harrington (Viola), Ben Wallace (Undrafted), Rob Sims (Primitiv), Calvin Johnson (Primitiv) and John Capetta (High Times). The athletes shared stories about their introduction to and relationship with cannabis. I was shocked to learn that they consumed weed during their professional athlete years. Shocked, I say. Totally shocked ;)
Finally, the conference was over but not really because there were more after parties to attend.
I went to a party on a yacht docked by the Chicago Riverwalk, where the yacht was owned by a sponsor of the event. I like yachts, but it was a reminder that my competition has yacht money. I will say that relaxing on the top deck of the yacht with new friends and sharing a jay is something that I can get used to. After a long few days, relaxing on a yacht was just what the doctor ordered.
I couldn’t relax for long because we were off to party number 2 of the night. My girl Jane West just launched in Illinois and was throwing a party, so I had to go see her. The party had dancers, infused food, and Jane West products to sample. At 10 pm I reached my limit and crashed.
It took me a few days to recover, but I can’t wait to grab my blazer and do it again.
For more about Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference and upcoming events from Benzinga, click here. Get early bird tickets now for the next conference, being held April 11-12, 2023 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Ken Ahbus is a New Yorker that loves cannabis and the drama of the industry. He sells clothing sometimes.
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Featured image: The Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference Athletes panel: Calvin "Megatron" Johnson, Ben Wallace, Ricky Williams, Rob Sims and Al Harrington gathered to discuss professional sports and the cannabis industry. (C) Benzinga