by Tim Atkin

The London Wine Fair: time to move

When the London International Wine Fair closes its doors at ExCel next Wednesday evening it will mark the end of a short and not particularly distinguished era in the show’s 33-year history. The 13 events out east have been unlucky for many exhibitors and visitors, not to mention Brintex, who have seen their profits fall dramatically since 2001.

It’s worth remembering that the LIWF moved to ExCel for two main reasons: it had “outgrown” its base at Olympia and the trade wanted the event to be housed in a more modern, air conditioned space. For all its drawbacks – ponderous transport links, over-priced, lacklustre food and a venue with all the personality of an aircraft hanger – ExCel is a professionally run operation. In the final year of the old, Olympia-based LIWF, no one had a good word to say about the place.

But now we are going back to West London in 2014, feeling warm and nostalgic about all those crowded pubs on Hammersmith Road. People who have been inside the venue recently say that it has changed for the better, which presumably includes air conditioning as well as a new paint job.

It’s also fair to say that overcrowding won’t be a problem, at least based on 2013’s LIWF alarming exhibitor statistics. At next week’s show, floor space is down by 25%. More worryingly for the LIWF, notable absentees this year include Bibendum, Enotria, Liberty Wines as well as New Zealand, Australia, California and South Africa. With high-profile companies and generic bodies like that among the no shows, the fair has become a rump of what it once was.

Why have so many people turned their back on the LIWF? It’s partly the inaccessibility of ExCel, but there are more pressings concerns: the price of stand space in a recession, especially when compared with ProWein and Vinexpo, the dwindling visitor numbers and the sense that Brintex wasn’t prepared to change a losing formula. As one ex-exhibitor put it: “It was a cash cow for them; they’ve been milking it for years. But they refused to move with the times.”

Not before time, Brintex appear to have realised that change is not only advisable, but essential. The trade publication, Harpers, has even launched a “Back It or Lose It” campaign, which partly misses the point in my view. It’s true that if more companies pull out, there won’t be a trade fair in 2015, but I also sympathise with the exhibitors who have done so this year. If anything, they may have done the LIWF a favour, forcing it to reinvent itself.

Ross Carter, who joined Brintex as the LIWF’s exhibition director in January this year, certainly seems to be making the right noises, admitting to me that the company has “one chance” to get it right or possibly lose the fair for good. This year’s event won’t reflect most of the changes he is planning, but he does seem to be attempting to inject some energy back into the show and increase its “relevance”, with pop-up tastings and a speakers’ corner.

You’ve probably read about some of the headline changes slated for 2014. First, it will have a new moniker – the London Wine Fair – dispensing with the word “international” because it can’t compete with the likes of ProWein and Vinexpo. Second, it will reduce the cost of stand space by 20-25%. Third, there will a dedicated area for small UK wine importers, who will pay £1,000 to exhibit for three days. And fourth, the briefings, debates, workshops and tastings will be significantly improved.

All this is well and good, but it’s the quality of the visitors that makes Prowein so appealing to many companies, partly because they have to pay to be there in the first place. The LIWF, sorry LWF, could also consider doing this to discourage the time-wasters who are there for a free drink. But Brintex has promised to invest £40,000 in visitor incentives to target buyers from the on-trade, independent retail and multiple retail sectors and to vet attendees more carefully.

Will this save the fair? Your guess is as valid as mine, but there’s a reasonable chance it will. Michael Saunders of Bibendum says that, “we are looking at next year very positively, given the proposed changes”. The LWF, he continues, has to generate “energy”, “passion” and “commitment”, not just tick the usual trade fair boxes. If it does, it could do something radically different, adopting some of the ideas that have made RAW and the Real Wine Fair so exciting.

A new model could be just what the global wine trade needs. After all, ProWein isn’t particularly innovative. It’s just held in a venue that is accessible, convenient and (for exhibitors at least) comparatively cheap. Succeed in 2014 and the LWF might revert to the LIWF, restoring London’s place at the centre of the wine world. And in the mean time, see you all next week.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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