Comment - Can Brintex make Distil more than a sideshow?
This year sees the launch of Distil, a dedicated spirits show to complement the London International Wine Fair. But, writes Chris Losh, having already failed to secure enough big spirits producers as exhibitors, organisers Brintex will find it hard to attract the right kind of visitors to its new show, suggesting a difficult first year.
With due respect to the several hundred exhibitors, thousands of visitors and dozens of programmed events at next week's London International Wine Fair, it could be argued that the most interesting event is taking place over the corridor, on the other side of the mighty ExCel exhibition centre.
This is the first year for Distil - the event that, it is hoped, will be to spirits what its big brother is to wine.
Spirits, of course, have been an ever-present at London Wine for a while now, but this year, for the first time, they have been surgically removed from the wine fair and given their own event.
At 3,000m sq, it's a tenth of the size of the gargantuan wine fair, and runs the risk of being rather overshadowed, but nonetheless the move has a certain logic to it. For starters, the 'spirits zone' in the wine fair was little more than a ramshackle grouping of spirits producers, and the relationship between grape and grain (or must and distillate) was always rather uneasy.
Splitting the spirits off into their own dedicated show, it was hoped, wouldn't just make things clearer for visitors, but would also bring on board some of the big spirits producers who had previously ignored the event.
"We were treading water with the spirits incorporated in the wine fair," says James Murray, exhibition director at Brintex, the company behind the London Wine Fair. "We did OK with spirits companies who were looking for UK distribution, but the big guys would say 'look, you're a wine fair with a spirits bolt-on; it's not relevant to us'. There was no way we were ever going to grow unless we did the bold thing and ran with something like Distil. So yes, it was a big decision to make, but it wasn't a tough one."
So, has the 'big decision' brought in the big companies as hoped?
Pernod Ricard, for instance, is putting big money into the wine fair, but - like most of its competitors - is content to observe Distil from the sidelines, for this year at least. "We look forward to visiting Distil next week and learning more about this new addition to the industry's trade events calendar," Vlastimil Spelda, Pernod Ricard's spirits marketing director, says tactfully.
Distil, it seems, will not be allowed a honeymoon period. It will need to deliver in its first year if the other spirits giants are to commit for 2009.
With so few of the big players in attendance, the exhibitor list is somewhat quixotic. Lots of smallish Tequila, Pisco and rum producers (on generic pavilions), for instance, but not much whisky beyond Diageo.
On the plus side, Brintex has made the most of Distil's newfound independence to give it a distinct character of its own. With half a dozen trade briefings, a continuous tasting timetable every day and plenty of zappy bar seminars and competitions, there should be enough going on for all but the most ADD-afflicted bartenders.
So, cautiously positive so far. But there are two fundamental questions that need answering if Distil is to be a success. i) Who is it aimed at? And ii) Will they turn up to visit?
The first of these is the toughest to answer. Murray is quick to point out that 40% of the Wine Fair's 14,000 visitors also have responsibility for buying spirits. But of that 6,000 it is unlikely that more than a couple of hundred ever visited the Spirit Zone when it was in the wine fair, and it would be wrong for Distil to rely on current visitors making the trek across the corridor for its success.
The problem lies in the paradox between who is exhibiting at Distil, and who visits the trade fair. The restaurateurs/hoteliers who make up much of the trade fair audience tend to be more interested in wine than spirits. While they might shop around for a new wine merchant, the vast majority tend to seek out one-stop shops for their spirits needs, which means larger companies. And of course, most of these aren't exhibiting.
Instead, the stands full of smaller spirit producers - and most of the accompanying events - are far more likely to be of interest to dedicated barmen; the kind of people who take spirits seriously and are looking for an individual point of difference for their outlet. But these are the very people who have tended not to come to the Trade Fair before. Moreover, they're one of the hardest groups to mobilise.
"I won't be going," says Chris Edwardes of Blanche House in Brighton, and something of a granddaddy to the British bar scene. "There's too many crap brands there. You just know it's going to smell of alcopops."
If Edwardes' blunt assessment is representative of the key on-premise target market, Distil does indeed face a tough inception. "It's a challenge," Murray concedes. "But you accept that they're hard to attract, and just pull out all the stops that you can to get them in."
Nonetheless, with no 'passing trade' to bail it out like it had when it was incorporated, however uneasily, into the Wine Fair, any shortage of visitor numbers for Distil will be glaringly obvious. And probably decisive for those big companies watching from the sidelines and waiting to make up their minds about exhibiting next year.
Brintex doesn't expect Distil to make money in its first year. Murray describes it as a "long-term commercial opportunity". But the question is whether the contradictions inherent in its nature will allow it to be around long enough ever to turn a profit.
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