Natural Products Expo, one of city's biggest trade shows, returns Thursday

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The Natural Products Expo, one of Baltimore's biggest trade shows, has been good for business for Eldersburg-based Salazon Chocolate Co.

Three-year-old Salazon, which makes organic salted chocolate bars, convinced Wegmans supermarkets to sell its products during the 2011 show. Salazon, which uses no artificial ingredients or preservatives and grows its beans in the Dominican Republic without pesticides or fertilizers, is among a handful of local businesses that plan to be back on the trade show floor this week when the four-day expo returns to Baltimore.


"You're trying to make contacts with industry executives," said Pete Truby, founder of Salazon, which also sells chocolate in about 3,000 Whole Foods stores. "You can get a new product in front of a lot of people much more easily because they're all at that trade show. You can maintain contacts and show new products and talk to people without flying."

The expo bills itself as the largest trade show of its kind on the East Coast. In Baltimore, it's expected to draw 22,000 attendees and generate $6.5 million in spending for city hotels, restaurants, shops and other entertainment and services, said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.


Besides giving a boost to start-ups — about a quarter of the 1,600 exhibitors plan to launch new products this week — the show is a welcome start to the fall convention season for the city.

Last month, Otakon, the city's biggest convention in terms of attendance, said the Japanese and East Asian anime show had outgrown the convention center and plans to leave Baltimore for Washington, starting in 2017.

Natural Products Expo, which first came to Baltimore in 1991, then left for other cities and returned twice, has committed to the city through 2018.

While the trade show draws fewer visitors than the massive Otakon — which brought close to 40,000 people to town — it comes with more hotel room bookings, Noonan said. He estimated the show generates about 16,000 room-nights, which means greater overall spending.

"For economic impact, this is definitely one of the biggest ones we have," Noonan said. "They use every square foot of the building for exhibits, ballroom space, lobby space. We would take this 52 weeks out of the year."

Opening Thursday at the Baltimore Convention Center, Natural Products Expo includes categories such as specialty foods and beverages, supplements, beauty products and pet products. It's produced by New Hope Natural Media, a Boulder, Colo.-based division of Penton Media.

The natural products market grew more than 9 percent to $137 billion last year, outpacing the 4 percent growth of the conventional grocery market, according to an industry forecast released this summer by New Hope. Within the "supplements" category, sports nutrition is one of the fastest-growing areas, with sales expected to grow 10 percent a year through 2015, according to the forecast. Personal care is another growing category, representing a $10 billion market.

Besides allowing buyers and manufacturers to mingle, the convention highlights healthy living trends, offers workshops for entrepreneurs and showcases socially conscious brands such as Quinn Popcorn, which pioneered chemical-free microwave bags.


Another Maryland company with a mission is Rockville-based SoapBox Soaps, a nearly two-year-old company that makes natural handmade bar soap, liquid hand soap and body wash.

"We have a social mission behind each of our product lines," said David Simnick, CEO and co-founder of SoapBox. "Our mission is to empower the customer with the ability to make the world a better place through everyday quality purchases."

For every purchase of a bar of soap, SoapBox donates a bar to a needy child through homeless shelters, food pantries or charities. For every purchase of hand soap, the company donates the cost of a month's worth of clean water development to a charity that provides fresh water to African villages. And a body wash purchase triggers the donation, through another charity, of a year's supply of vitamin supplements for a child somewhere in the world.

SoapBox soap is sold in Whole Foods stores in the mid-Atlantic, southwest and Midwest and will be launched in Harris Teeter stores starting next month.

"People will buy us the first time because of the story," Simnick said. "Hopefully everyone uses soap on a regular basis. The idea was if this consumption is taking place on a regular basis, why not turn each one of those purchases into something good."

Simnick said his company has learned about packaging, distribution and pricing not only by trial and error and advice from investors but by attending trade shows such as the Natural Products Expo.


"The reason why these trade shows are so important is you're able to tell your story face-to-face to stores, to customers, to brokers and distributors," said Simnick, who will be back at the Baltimore expo for the second time. "Through an accelerated process, you can make big gains for your business."

Other Maryland-based businesses that will showcase products include: B'more Organic, an organic food company that sells Icelandic-style yogurt and smoothies; Bethesda-based beverage company Honest Tea; and Joyful Bath Co., which makes bath salts and handmade botanical soaps.

Truby, the Salazon founder, said demand is growing for organic and natural products as consumers become more conscious of personal and environmental health.

"It's a neat industry to be a part of," he said. "There is a lot of entrepreneurship and creativity."