World Tea Virtual Summit Report: Tea Is Being Driven by Wellness, Product Engagement and Sustainability Efforts

The tea industry faces unprecedented uncertainty across the board – from origin to internal operations and production to demand and customer outreach – because of COVID-19. Questex’s World Tea Virtual Summit: What Now? , taking place Oct. 12-14, 2020, seeks to address the industries’ new challenges, while providing an educational and engaging agenda.

The State of the Industry
“The drivers of growth in the tea business over the last decade or so has been the ready-to-drink [RTD] segment and the specialty tea segment,” said Peter F. Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., Inc., who gave the opening presentation at the World Tea Virtual Summit on Oct. 12. “Tea is really being driven by health and wellness, naturalness, product engagement, and really sustainability measure efforts across the supply chain.”

The conversation around tea has evolved, like coffee and beer, to be enjoyed on a more artisanal level. “We’re now talking about tea much in the same way we talked about wine 20 or 30 years ago,” Goggi continued. “And that’s the terroirs, we have the Darjeelings, the Uvas, the Yunnans, the Kericho, and people are talking about the importance and differences of these terroirs, whether it’s due to elevation, soils, etc., and it’s creating accessibility and engagement of tea with its consumers.”

Goggi stressed the importance of engagement with consumers and educating them on where their tea originates – now more than ever. He also quoted Seth Godin, emphasizing that people don’t buy goods and services; they buy relationships, stories and magic. Goggi said, “You can talk about so many different aspects of tea, whether it’s the person who grows tea, the families and those involved in manufacturing tea, the supply chain, the way that tea is transported from origin to consumer and the way you prepare tea. So much to talk about, so much to engage with the consumer that tea is really being driven by this engagement, particularity the millennial demographic.” 

Lessons Learned from the Crisis
Brandon Friedman, founder and CEO, Rakkasan Tea Company, was joined by Chris Olsen, chief business development officer of Teatulia, and Cecilia Corral and Andrés Jurado, co-founders of Tianté and Escuela Mexicana de Té, for a special “Lessons Learned” session, where they shared their experiences, struggles and lessons learned while navigating their way through the pandemic. The tea professionals panel discussed the impact of the loss of human interaction (both customer and fellow team members), supply delays, financial struggles, creating authentic, personal customer engagement on social media, and how they plan to move forward.

According to the panelists, the ability to connect with and interact with customers is embedded in the tea industry. Friedman noted, “We don’t have a storefront but we have an office and we usually have customers come in, and just the loss of that human interaction – being able to have tea with people every day – has been a struggle.” 

Jurado and Corral remain focused on reimagining how they can keep in touch with their customers. Corral said that the online classes they offer have been beneficial, even though they are now only virtual. “Tea has been the thing that keeps us together. For us and our customers, it’s important to feel that contact even if we are far,” she added.

The pivot from brick and mortar to online was an abrupt change and the companies on this particular panel had no choice but to adapt, taking on the challenges that came with it. This meant changing marketing tactics to a more personal approach on social media, educational series, and online classes.

“I would say the biggest impact financially was for our on-premise teams,” said Olsen. On the retail side (off-premise), they’ve seen increases as people stay home and order online, thus changing how tea companies strategize customer outreach. 

Moving to a completely virtual company has been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. “I think that’s been the biggest adjustment, going virtual and keeping the teams motivated and in a good headspace,” said Olsen.

Flexibility and agility are the keys to survival so far in the pandemic, not necessarily planning. “It’s okay, planning, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Jurado explained, “but if you plan, you need to be aware that you need to maybe make a lot of changes and you need to be able to make them.”

In Good Taste
The World Tea Virtual Summit keynote was presented by Sebastian Michaelis, the director of tea buying and blending at Tata Consumer Products Ltd. Michaelis explained his role as a professional tea taster and how both of his grandmothers introduced him to the world of tea. But he also discussed the biological ties taste and smell have to memory and emotion, and the impact that the environment and mood can play in influencing taste. He stressed that how tea makes you feel is more important than knowledge of tea and tasting.

“Tea is unique amongst beverages in its vast variety of origins, types and flavors but the good news is you don’t have to be an expert taster to know when a tea makes you feel good,” said Michaelis. 

Finally, Michaelis expressed the importance of connecting with consumers by understanding how their taste is shaped by culture, history and upbringing. “The experience of taste is what brings people back for more,” he pointed out.

Michaelis’ advice for budding tasting students is to taste, taste and taste some more, learning through experience and practice and try to describe your senses. “By associating a name with a taste, it allows your brain to register it and next time you taste it, it will evoke that memory again,” Michaelis concluded.

Staying Relevant in 2020

Maria Uspenski, founder and CEO of The Tea Spot, discussed how her company handled the pandemic and was joined by three other Colorado-based companies: Kelly Amoroso from Allegro Coffee Company, John Simmons, co-founder of Weller Snacks, and Sara Martinelli, co-owner of Three Leaf Farm and Three Leaf Concepts, to discuss how to stay relevant in 2020.

The location where tea is consumed has shifted. “Tea has come home,” said Uspenski. “We’re in big-time do-it-yourself mode. We’re looking primarily to stay healthy, keep calm, and immune-boosting with the help of tea.”

The options available in the home might have varied from what was available outside the home. Uspenski focused on bringing the premium tea experience to the home that doesn’t break the bank. She said, “The types of tea that are being consumed are focusing in on the essentials. Particularly, those essentials that are perceived to be good for self-care, to bolster immunity, to help maintain that healthy digestion, help reduce stress, bring us back into balance, and get us some rest and sleep.”

Product development for The Tea Spot shifted with the changing needs of customers during the pandemic. For example, the company created an herbal tea blend that fights flu-like symptoms and created a craft tea brewer that fits on any wide-mouth mason jar to support a craft tea brew at home.

The Tea Spot explained how it has strived to do its best while coping with the pandemic, as it affects business and work environments. Ultimately, the business understood that the tea industry is faced with the same struggles as the consumer – stress, adaptation and uncertainty. And yet, Uspenski called 2020 their most exciting year: “Because it’s the one that is somehow most to try to be able to balance things and to show empathy and compassion with both our customers and employees.”

Editor’s Note: The complete World Tea Virtual Summit 2020 speaker presentations will be available online soon, for anyone who missed the digital event.

Amanda Murphy is a freelance writer and a World Tea News contributor. She’s fond of fire trucks, yoga mats and a strong cup of matcha. She can be found on her front porch in Kennett Square, Pa., sipping pu’er and listening to her favorite podcast. Murphy has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Joseph’s University and is currently a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she is working towards her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Instagram: @aregina92.