Let’s seize this opportunity for radical change – and involve consumers too
I don’t envy Ross Carter, the man responsible at Brintex for the London Wine Fair, as it will be officially known in future.
On the one hand, he has to make sense of all the emotions that the event evokes, both negative and positive. On the other hand, he has to listen to a multitude of suggestions about the best way forward from retailers, distributors, agents, producers, generic bodies and journalists, all with their own often quite different agendas. And, lest we forget, he has to make an acceptable return for Brintex.
The pressure is most certainly on. My feeling is that the trade will give Brintex greater support next year, and that exhibitor numbers will return to the levels of 2012. Brintex is saying all the right things and there is talk of reducing prices. There is a feeling of renewed energy about the event. And the return to Olympia, an air-conditioned Olympia at that, has met with widespread approval.
But expectations will be very high: it is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that for some companies and generics, the 2014 event represents the last chance saloon. And as an outsider I will be intrigued to see how these expectations are managed.
How important is the Fair to the UK trade?
The position is complicated by the fact that some in the trade, in my view, would be very happy to see the end of the Fair; there is a feeling that it’s become unnecessary. They have moved on. They are assuredly offering advice to Ross about what direction to take (opinions which may be very valid ) but there is a fundamental lack of commitment on their part. Certainly if there was no Fair, they would not be lobbying to launch one.
In some cases this is genuinely about the cost of the Fair judged against its perceived benefits. But for others the cost of the Fair is probably a smokescreen. Exhibitors’ lack of interest is perhaps a direct result of the arrival of myriad other UK trade tastings and events which did not exist 10 years ago, but which now dilute the benefits of a showpiece event like London. ProWein, meanwhile, has grown in importance, and this has had a radical effect on how the trade views the Fair.
There are, of course, those at the other extreme for whom the Fair remains a centrepiece of the UK wine trade calendar. It is an event to which they have an emotional attachment, which implies that they don’t spend too much time attempting any rational analysis of the costs against the benefits (which is, after all, a difficult enough exercise however much time you give to it).
I should probably state at this point that I feel myself drawn to the latter group. The remainder of this post will offer views on how the Fair might be improved, but I do start from the basis that I think an annual Fair in London should remain an integral part of the calendar. And I am prepared to admit that my fond memories of Fairs past, both from a business and social point of view, predispose me to be positive.
Should we have a Fair in London?
In short my answer is assuredly “yes”. As long as we continue to have pretensions to be close to the centre of the wine world then it must make sense to hold an annual Fair. And, to put it another way, if we abandoned the Fair, it would send out a rather sad signal to the rest of the wine world.
What kind of Fair should it be?
This is actually the more important question. If I was considering exhibiting next year my decision would not be based on whether the event was to be held at ExCeL or Olympia or indeed whether the stand costs were 10%-20% less. My decision would be based on what Brintex was intending to do, not simply to rejuvenate the event but to make it demonstrably important for me to be there.
For those who exhibited this year, this is less of an issue. They had the opportunity to join the exodus but decided to stay in. So they should need little persuading. But for those who pulled out it’s a different matter. For a start, they will have to find the money – money that they either saved or spent on other things this year.
Peer pressure will clearly play a part. Companies generally don’t feel comfortable missing out on events that everybody else is attending.
However that is not likely to be enough for more than one year. For the longer term the Fair, in my view, needs a new vision. Here are four suggestions.
We need to accept that London has lost the battle with ProWein to become, with Vinexpo, Europe’s leading international fair. One could spend time analysing why the battle was lost, but for the purposes of this piece let’s just accept the situation and move on. London should now become a Fair which is 100% focused on highlighting the opportunities in the UK market and which helps producers, distributors and retailers to realise their potential.
As part of this UK focus, the Fair should become a hub where buyer meets seller. That’s not really where we are currently. I was surprised that more major retailers did not follow Tesco’s initiative of 2012 and take stands of their own. Apparently some 116 suppliers presented to Tesco’s buying team this year.
That sounds pretty worthwhile to me, and exactly what the Fair needs. Why should all the stands be taken by sellers? But I’m not suggesting that only the majors should go this route. Why not groups of independents too? Let’s have a “hub” which reflects the market. And as part of this let’s encourage events like WineStars ( www.winestarsworld.co.uk ) which help producers breakthrough into this market.
An area that has improved significantly is the focus of the seminars and debates. The emphasis until recently was on tastings; now the balance has shifted to discussions which provide an opportunity to learn more about the business and marketing of wine. This trend should be encouraged. I realise it’s difficult as an attendee to get the balance right, to find the time to buy or sell and also to stand back from the process and attend educational seminars. But the choice should be available.
Most importantly I would like to see some consumer involvement. Many of the seminars are focused quite rightly on how we spend too much as a trade talking to ourselves, and yet the irony is that, at the time when we have the largest concentration of producers and opinion formers in one place, talking to ourselves represents the sum total of what we do.
My ideal Fair would run from Wednesday through until Saturday with Friday pm and Saturday focused 100% on consumers. This would certainly not suit all exhibitors so there would need to be the option of pulling out on the Friday. I’m not underestimating the logistical task or, indeed, the marketing task – the last thing we need is for consumers to be faced with a wall of stands. We would need “theatre” and a festival atmosphere, but surely it is too good an opportunity to miss.
As my introduction noted, for people like myself who have attended probably 25 London Wine Fairs it is difficult to be detached about the event, however rational we like to consider ourselves.
However there seems no doubt that the exodus this year and the move to Olympia have acted as a catalyst for the raison d’etre of the Fair to be given more serious thought than has been the case for some time.
What is crucial now is that Brintex and the UK trade take the opportunity to do more than simply paper over the cracks. The London Wine Fair could reinvent itself as something quite special; a celebration perhaps of all that’s positive about the UK market, an exciting hub which adds real value to buyers and sellers and an opportunity for participants to stand back from the day-to-day to broaden their awareness of industry and consumer trends.
And combined with all this, it could become a much heralded annual event at which the astonishing diversity of the wines on offer in this market is presented to the people that really matter, in a manner that encaptures the passion and excitement that most of us feel about the product we sell.