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Music festivals have long been associated with alcohol, but today's premium gatherings are a great space for a touch of cocktail theatricality. just-drinks' consumer trends columnist Laura Foster spies an opportunity amid the mud and the portable toilets.

Music festivals are a lot of fun - and can offer your brand a host of new consumers

Music festivals are a lot of fun - and can offer your brand a host of new consumers

As the summer in the UK rumbles to a close and autumn takes over, I'm packing up my festival kit once more. Away goes the tent and the thankfully-unused wellington boots, unlikely to be unearthed again until the weather warms up again next year.

It was while I was stood at a small, quirky festival a couple of weeks ago that something caught my eye: amongst all the cheap lager and cider brands, and basic spirits and mixers on the menu, this bar also offered a 'Nitro Espresso Martini'. In other words, they had a kegged cocktail on tap. In a tent with nothing more than a dancefloor and DJs playing on the stage. Is this perhaps the signal of a whole new world of festival drinking, a kernel of hope in what can otherwise be a dreary part of the festival experience?

Most festival bars - and I'm not talking about those sponsored by a single brand that can create a memorable, tailored drinking experience - fall decidedly short of the mark, with small bottles of thin, acidic wine and bad mixers all putting a dampener on that all- important and oft-repeated trip to the bar. 

There's definitely a thirst for quality drinks in the festival fields, however. 

According to CGA's 2019 report 'Your Future in Festivals: How to Stand Out from the Crowd', festivalgoers are happy to upgrade their drinking experience, with 65% of the survey's respondents saying they would like to do so, with emphasis being placed on premium spirits. As CGA says: "This suggests an appetite for more premium brands that is not being fulfilled by the current drinks offering."

Alongside this, in its imaginatively named report 'CGA Festival Insights: Food & Drink' from last year, the research company asked what would most improve respondents' experience at festivals, and a significant 28% declared that a wider drinks offering was the key. Given that the same report also found that 44% of festivalgoers tried drinks that they hadn't sampled before going to the festival, there's ample opportunity for scooping up new converts to brands.

That's not to say that all festivals and drinks brands aren't doing it right. The key to success lies not only in upping the quality of drinks, but providing memorable experiences to boot. We have once again come back to that mantra of 'experiences, not things'. Glastonbury's Beat Hotel and Shangri la bars have been run by drinks consultancy Soulshakers for years.

The team work with the creative forces of these areas (the Shangri-la team in particular create a narrative for their area every year, completely changing the look, feel and design of their temporary venues), bringing in properly trained bartenders to serve cocktails that fit that year's theme. The elevated design and theatricality draw and enthral the crowds, and they're only too happy to part with more cash to enjoy a proper cocktail, albeit one that's served in a plastic cup.

The drinks don't have to be complicated either: high-quality Bloody Marys at the Beat Hotel draw hungover crowds looking for a decent hair-of-the-dog option.

Looking at brand-owned bars, Fever-Tree creates successful ones that offer G&T menus where the drinks are served in smart stemless plastic wine glasses - handed over for a refundable deposit - and made with a range of premium gins, and proper garnishes to boot. They often have huge queues, and their smart glasses can be spotted throughout the festival site, piquing interest. It's not rocket science.

Interactivity is also a successful trick: Diageo often encourages trial at the events it books, with its Ketel One Kitchen giving cocktail masterclasses in its creative space, alongside a functioning bar that pushes out vodka cocktails to the thirsty hordes. Brands have the opportunity to create unusual, theatrical experiences in festival environments, where consumers are happy to let their inhibitions down and try new things. I see a future where theatricality is increasingly adopted by brands.

My favourite experiences at the small Shambala festival this year were those late-night spaces with actors bringing the venue to life. One was a send-up of political life in the House of Commons, with a bar in the corner that was putting out unrecognisable Mojitos, amongst other frankly disgusting concoctions. The other was a hidden New York jazz bar that opened late and ran until 5am. The authentic atmosphere in the venue screamed 'premium cocktail offering', and indeed the short menu offered a truncated menu of classics that were passable. Combined with the incredible live jazz, the atmosphere and the actors, the experience was a highlight of the summer, let
alone the weekend. 

Festivals allow those who attend to become different people. They let down their guard, are often more open and friendly, and can indulge in a weekend of escapism. Brands that enable consumers to step through the looking glass will win new fans, so go ahead and go wild with your brand activation plans. Recreate Elton John's Vegas residency concert, or the Mad Hatter's tea party… let that hair down and watch the consumers come flocking.

"The world has changed dramatically" - just-drinks speaks to Distell Group CEO Richard Rushton


Expert Analysis

Gin & Genever (Spirits) Market in United Kingdom - Outlook to 2022: Market Size, Growth and Forecast Analytics

Gin & Genever (Spirits) Market in United Kingdom - Outlook to 2022: Market Size, Growth and Forecast Analytics

Gin & Genever (Spirits) Market in United Kingdom - Outlook to 2022: Market Size, Growth and Forecast Analytics is a broad level market review of Gin & Genever market in United Kingdom.

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