Ahead of the North American Tea Conference, Expert Encourages the Industry to Innovate

After a hiatus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the North American Tea Conference (NATC) in Canada is back this month with its first in-person event since 2019.

This year’s NATC is being hosted by the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada from Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 at Queen’s Landing, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada.

The schedule is packed in a carefully curated package to address some of the issues the industry is facing today. Topics will include supply chain, sustainability and commerce, with breakout discussions for delegates to provide feedback and thoughts on the issues discussed.

The renowned Dr. Sylvain Charlebois – a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada – will set the tone for the event. He'll talk about the shifting lines between food service and retail within the context of the disruptions consumers have faced over the past two years.The event’s supply chain discussion will ask some hard questions about production patterns and the value of data. The sustainability segment will guide delegates on how to establish and operate ethically and effectively in a turbulent world. And the commerce portion will help navigate the changing realities of traditional retail, specialty retail and e-commerce, among other topics on the agenda.

President of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada, Shabnam Weber, said, “For me, the North American Tea Conference is a time for us not only to gather and share a drink with old friends while perhaps making new ones; but it’s the time we all get out from behind our desks, from behind our screens and hopefully take home a nugget or two to make our daily work a little bit better.”

Weber added: “I do believe that this year’s conference will indeed do all of that and more. And I hope, from the bottom of my heart, I’ve met the responsibility placed on me after two years of isolation.”

North American Tea Conference
Attendees at a past North American Tea Conference (Photo: Courtesy of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada)

Weber Offers Thoughts on Tea Industry Trends, Says It’s Time to ‘Innovate’

According to Weber, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed some people the time to pause and reflect on what’s most important, and it caused many to look for a place of calm and relaxation.

“That’s where tea stepped in and played a large role,” Weber told World Tea News. “We saw large increases in tea consumption over the past two years led largely by a need for something that helped reduce stress. I don’t believe those elements of wanting to keep some calm in our lives is going away. I may be back full time in an office or working a hybrid work model, but the one thing I still want is a sense of me and a sense of taking time for that which matters. And if for two years that has meant incorporating tea into my ritual, I do believe that trend will continue."

Weber noted that this desire for a sense of calm was driven largely by younger consumers. She said that it's an opportunity the tea industry needs to capitalize on: “This sense of calm includes health and functional teas; those with added vitamins and minerals were on trend before the pandemic," she explained. "They proved to be a strong trend during COVID, and companies continue to increase their line of teas in this area. Functional has expanded beyond vitamins to include the functionality of alternative ingredients such as mushrooms.”

Weber said she’s also watching the increase in consumers looking for either non-alcoholic or low-alcoholic beverage products – an opportunity for the tea industry. “It’s so on trend that even the liquor stores here in Canada are offering these options,” she said. “And this is an opportunity for tea. I’ve said this before in this space – innovate, innovate, innovate. Some companies have started, and I think it’s exciting when I see carbonated tea in cans or bottles. It elevates our product and increases the value we assign it simply by adding some CO2 and packaging it differently.”

From Weber's vantage, one of the most important issues the tea industry faces right now is value/price. “Tea is far too cheap and that’s as simple as I can possibly put it,” she revealed.

Weber concluded that every part of the supply chain suffers when the price of tea is driven down. “We need to talk about this reality, and we need to talk about it loudly,” she said. “All this at a time when ‘sustainability’ is the trend du jour. How can we even say the word ‘sustainability’ when a box of 216 teabags sells for between $12 to $14 CAD, and that’s without mentioning discounts and BOGO schemes?”

Each and every consumer needs to ask this question, encouraged Weber – How is that a sustainable price, how can fairness be distributed throughout a supply chain at that price?

“That box of tea consists of shelf space, marketing/advertising, packaging [box, overwrap, envelope, teabag, string, tag], shipping, packing… and I still haven’t mentioned the actual tea,” said Weber. “This is the real threat to the tea industry – it isn’t a shortage of shipping containers, it isn’t climate change and carbon – all of these are very important, but at the end, all connected to value/price.”

For more information about the upcoming NATC, and to register to learn more about some of the topics covered, visit Tea.ca/calendar/natc2022.

Writer/reporter Erin Flynn Jay also contributed to this article.

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World Tea Conference + Expo, March 27-29, 2023

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