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June 13, 2022

How Covid-19 is re-shaping the wine fair circuit

Covid-19 could do to wine fairs what it’s done to the population at large: leave some unaffected, weaken others and kill off the most vulnerable.

By Chris Losh

The validity of some trade fairs has regularly been questioned in this column over the last 12 years. In a world where buying power increasingly seems to rest in fewer and fewer hands, fairs seem – if not exactly unnecessary – then certainly an expensive way of attempting to grow your business.

I’ve spoken to dozens of exhibitors who’ve spent a day pouring samples for visitors who were undoubtedly keen and interested but had little or no buying power. In such a scenario, wineries are effectively paying to take stand space to provide free educational samples for anyone who wants them.

It’s a charity function that few could afford ten years ago, so it’s safe to say that even fewer can afford it now.

Which is why the last month has been so interesting. Covid-19 stopped exhibitions dead, for obvious reasons. Since the very earliest months of 2020 there weren’t any until Wine Paris, which was (somewhat astonishingly) opened up to a hesitant audience in mid-February. It was, by all accounts, understandably quiet, though kudos to the organisers for taking a stand. Feedback seems to have been pretty positive.

The German organisers of Prowein were more cautious. They postponed their event in Düsseldorf from its usual March date, switching it to May. Since this clashed with London Wine Fair, it had the extra advantage (for Prowein) of throwing a competitor into a tailspin – although the Germans, somewhat unconvincingly, claimed the clash was an unfortunate coincidence. The London event moved to June for the first time.

It means that since April we have seen Vinitaly, Prowein and, last week, London Wine Fair in consecutive months.

Clearly, the businesses that run them have a reason to get them off the ground again as soon as possible – it’s their source of income after all. But the question is whether there’s still an appetite for them from exhibitors and visitors.

From the boom in online retailing to Zoom tastings and home working, Covid-19 has changed our attitude to many things. Necessity has turned a lot of sacred cows into hamburgers. Could trade fairs be one of them?

Early feedback to this question seems to be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

The fairs that are going ahead are not what they were – at least, not yet. Prowein had to widen the aisles to encourage social distancing (largely symbolic, I’d suggest) and the number of visitors was, to no-one’s great surprise, noticeably down.

Those from Asia and the US were most conspicuous by their absence, which is damaging for an event that has very much touted itself as the drinks show where the whole world comes to do business.

The wine producers who I follow on one French trade website certainly seemed unimpressed. Vast, echoing halls with relatively few visitors, added to Düsseldorf’s infamously eye-watering costs of accommodation, made for three days that many of them found hard to justify.

Most of these producers had originally signed up for 2020 and simply rolled over their stand until 2022 rather than lose it. It would be interesting to know how many would commit money to 2023. Not many would be my guess. Many of these vignerons were muttering about Wine Paris as being a better bet.

Certainly, the latter has the advantage of being part of a larger city, with a lot more reasonably-priced accommodation, and good infrastructure. Thus far, the feedback I’ve picked up seems to be it’s seen very much as a French fair – rather like Vinitaly is an Italian fair. There are global pretensions, but they haven’t been realised yet – at least, certainly not to the extent they have in Prowein.

And this, perhaps, is where Prowein still scored well. It may not have worked for small producers that had taken a stand and pitched up hoping to meet new importers. But that’s never been its strong point anyway – it’s simply been thrown into sharper relief by stripping out large numbers of walk-ins.

In fact, senior members of the wine trade – who were, admittedly, visiting rather than exhibiting –  still found it time well spent. They arranged appointments, met principles, discussed strategy, did business and signed contracts.

Yes, it was expensive, but justifiable in the grand scheme of things. The smaller numbers of visitors, they said, actually made the experience more pleasant. Big buyers from all the key European and Nordic markets were there.

There will be big discussions taking place in boardrooms and generic offices around the world over the next few months, deciding whether to commit to stand space for Düsseldorf in 2023.

My feeling is people are warm to the concept, but hesitant. Burgeoning price pressures and dwindling consumer confidence could see more cautious operators keeping their wallets closed. So much could depend on the attitude of the organisers. If they’re flexible on pricing, people will return. If they’re hard-nosed, businesses may well walk away.

There’s a precedent for this. Back in 2008, London Wine Fair was a mighty exhibition with global pretentions across the entire drinks space. After that year’s financial crisis, hobbled by a huge and expensive exhibition space, they continued to play hardball with pricing. Dozens of businesses, genuinely fearing for their future, walked away because they had no option. Many have never returned.

The London Wine Fair, for sure, is much diminished compared to even ten years ago – though this is arguably more a reflection on the UK market than the fair itself. With wine consumption flat, the UK is a less attractive market for producers. And many countries that invested big generic bucks in the market 20 years ago have concluded they’ve not always found the returns they’d hoped for.

London Wine Fair is in the process of reinventing itself as a national, rather than international event. Features such as areas for quirky small importers, unrepresented wineries and alternative packaging have been popular. The decision to charge GBP45 for a visitor ticket less so. Even though many (such as sommeliers) are exempt, it felt markedly quieter.

In a year that began with Omicron spikes and lockdown chaos for much of the northern hemisphere, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about trade fairs. On one level, it’s a miracle they’re happening at all. And North American visitors will surely return – even if Asian ones are less likely in the near-term, at least.

But this still feels like a crucial 12 months. There’s significantly less money around in the wine world than even five years ago – which didn’t feel especially flush at the time. Businesses will have tough decisions to make about where they invest and shows will need to be realistic in their pricing, clear about their USP and resolutely able to deliver it.

If not, Covid-19 could do to exhibitions what it’s done to the population at large: leave some unaffected, weaken others and kill off the most vulnerable.

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