Taking a stand – is it worth it?
Trade shows are so much part of the fabric of the wine business that it is hard to imagine life without them. But Richard Woodard asks if the industry can support such a large number of international fairs and whether they provide true value for money.
If you believe the organisers' press releases, there has never been a bad drinks trade fair. Visitor numbers are buoyant, exhibitors are happy and everything goes like clockwork. But in a consolidating drinks industry where companies are in almost constant contact with their distributors, is there really a need for three Vinexpos, one London International Wine and Spirits Fair (LIWSF) and a supporting cast of Proweins, Vinitalys and many, many more?
The CEO of one medium-sized Australian wine company, speaking on the eve of a recent LIWSF, likened it to a game of chicken: lots of people were wondering why they still attend - but none of them wanted to be the first to cancel.
That is slightly cynical. Many companies maintain that it is important to keep a presence, although they can be rather vague on the precise reasons why. It's a bit like a policeman walking down the street - you can't say how many crimes he might be preventing. It's just as difficult to say what effect a two-tier stand with a lift has on case sales.
But drinks companies aren't stupid - and they won't just dumbly turn up and pay the (often exorbitant) bill for no return. Take the recent history of Vinexpo, for example.
The travails of Bordeaux in 2003 are well known. Those who endured the heat when the air-conditioning failed in one exhibition hall have dined out on the experience like Vietnam veterans. It might be just another funny story, but for the fact that the hall contained a large proportion of New World customers - Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans - who were deeply unimpressed.
Many haven't been back since, with generic bodies pulling out of Bordeaux along with many producers, and Gallo the biggest absence for the past couple of events. You could dismiss this as New World pique at perceived French arrogance and incompetence (although the likes of Wines of South Africa would deny this), but consider this: if Vinexpo was really crucial to these companies' business, would they stay away?
It will be interesting to see the exhibitors' list for next year's Bordeaux event, particularly as the organisers have unveiled substantial improvements, not least to the supposedly elite Club des Marques area.
Hot weather in the past couple of years has exposed the limitations of a tented village without any form of air conditioning, so it's no surprise to see a revamped Club des Marques, complete with air conditioning, taking shape by the lakeside. Show director Robert Beynat must be hoping that this will breathe new life into the Club, whose numbers have dwindled from 16 to nine in recent years.
If some are now questioning Bordeaux - for so long the global wine trade event - there have been even bigger doubts about Vinexpo's forays overseas. Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2002 was held in Tokyo, but was criticised for its lack of visitors from the wider region. Exhibitors such as González Byass grumbled that the show might as well have been called Vinexpo Japan, so paltry were the numbers from China and elsewhere.
However, this year's event in Hong Kong has been hailed as a success, not least because of a broader international profile. González Byass's regional sales director Paul Kerstens says he was happy with the event and would definitely go back - but not to Tokyo, Seoul or Singapore.
Kerstens says he may have made as many as five new distribution deals out of the 2006 show. The company also took a smaller stand than in 2002, at a cost of around EUR10,000 to EUR12,000. A far cry from the six-figure sums paid out for a slot in the Club des Marques.
But there are other factors to consider that have nothing to do with cost or efficiency of organisation. Even if 2002's Vinexpo Asia-Pacific had been held in Hong Kong, the chances are it would have been a lukewarm success at best, because of the economic situation in the region. Now Asia is a much more desirable destination for the world's wine companies.
"Eight years ago, you could have shot a cannon off down the aisles and not hit anybody," quips David DeBoer of Californian producer Delicato. "This year, it was just the opposite. The development is encouraging, and definitely a sign of the developing wine market in this part of the world."
Vinexpo's other overseas excursions have been to the US - New York in 2002 and Chicago in 2004. Bearing in mind the burgeoning interest in wine Stateside, the huge success of brands like Yellow Tail and the difficulties of entering such a complicated market, Vinexpo Americas should be a good bet for success.
And yet it's never really worked, according to many exhibitors. It has been suggested that creating a great wine trade fair for the US is all but impossible: the key markets are on the opposite seaboards, so whichever one you use as a venue, you're excluding the other, while staging it in Chicago runs the risk of excluding both.
Vinexpo will almost certainly return to Asia in 2008, and the US in 2009, with the smart money on New York as a venue. Organisers must have their fingers crossed that the Asian markets are as enticing then as they are now, but the jury is out on the US, however attractive that market might be.
Meanwhile, although the LIWSF has its critics - and had its own air-conditioning problems this year - it seems to escape the scathing criticism that Vinexpo has attracted in recent years.
Some of this is owed to a somewhat vague reputation for being more "businesslike" - which is not always justified - and to the attraction of more overseas visitors. But by and large people have stood by the LIWSF because of the crucial nature of the UK market, however tough it may have become recently. Quite simply, plenty of people still think it makes business sense to attend - and what other reason is there for an expensive, three-day treadmill of meetings in a large, windowless room?
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