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Giving a boost wine business in the UK

The London Wine Fair, being held at Olympia 18-20 May is widely regarded as one of the world’s most important wine trade events. Event director Ross Carter talks to Felicity Murray

Ross Carter London Wine Fair

This year will be Ross’s third London Wine Fair as event director.  He took on the role in January 2013, about five months before the event, which was the last to be held at Excel as the London International Wine Fair. Last year the show moved to Olympia with a new name and focus. 

“The exhibition in 2013 was the low point in the event’s 35 year history,” he says, “We’d lost an awful lot of exhibitors and shrunk probably to about 50% of the size we were in 2008, which is the year we had the biggest participation (certainly in square metre terms).”

Ross has a wine industry background, which gives him a better understanding of the needs of both exhibitors and visitors. This he firmly believes has helped him re-grow the exhibition.

“I worked on the Wine Fair for about three years until 2009 in the role of international sales manager, looking after all the overseas exhibitors and agents.  But, in between the two stints, I spent about two years in New Zealand working in a winery cleaning wine makers’ equipment, basically, and I then went to South America, to Mendoza and Tulle, visiting lots of wine regions there for about six months.  I came back and got a job at importers PLB in their quality assurance department, where I had to fill in lots of lengthy on-line Q/A forms for the retailers – but in between times you got to taste lots of lovely Pinot Grigio from Italy.  It was a really good learning experience; really good to get to properly understand how the mechanics of importing and distribution work.

“After about two years at PLB, I was asked if I’d like to join the Wine Fair again, so here I am again!  It is great to come back to this with proper wine trade experience because you see it completely differently.”

The show was launched 1981 in Kensington but not at Olympia – at another venue, which doesn’t exist anymore (underneath the Kensington Roof Gardens). It moved over to Olympia about three years later where it grew and grew. It relocated, out of necessity, to Excel in 2001 and by then it had developed into a truly international exhibition. And not just for wine but spirits too. This area was called Distil.

“We had brand owners from all over the world taking part. Yes, it was sizeable; some of the stands were ridiculous – you could have landed a helicopter on top of them! The show reached its peak in 2008 and, subsequently, it was no coincidence that following the Lehman Brothers crash, it shrank.  That, coupled with lots of other things, such as the European Union changing the law on how marketing money could be spent (only outside of Europe) resulting in wineries starting to invest in Asian events; along with the UK market becoming very competitive and multiple retail-led with low margins. There were lots of reasons and maybe we took our eye off the ball a little bit and weren’t keeping up with the trends, and weren’t getting the right types of exhibitors involved to create the right interest within the market.  I think it was the perfect storm of things – the show took a really significant hit. 

“Moving back last year to Olympia was our opportunity to re-imagine what we wanted it to be.  The most obvious change, other than the venue, was that we took ‘International’ out of the name.  We were criticised a bit for that, but on the whole people saw it as a positive move. We were conscious that there are lots of other international exhibitions and some significantly larger than the Wine Fair.  We also were conscious that this market is one of the leading import markets in the world.  Considering that we import 99.9% of our wine, that’s a very significant position to hold in world import markets.  Therefore, we decided we wanted to produce ‘the wine trade event’ for, what we called, the world’s leading import market (I am sure that’s debatable, but we’re certainly among the leading markets).  It’s a market that deserves its own annual trade event and that’s what we set out to achieve last year.  In so doing we convinced (25 I think it was) importers to join us again last year and that was at least double what we had had the year before - so it was significant. And yes, we completely re-invented the content sessions that were going on, introduced new content, rebranded the show entirely and put an awful lot of effort into bringing, what we considered, to be the right type of buyer to the fair.  In our mind, a fair of this size with 10,000 or more wines needs to appeal to audiences, to channels where there is the need for multiple wine styles from multiple origins, multiple grape varieties – and that is mainly the independent off- and on-trade markets as well as the growing number of specialists on-line. 

“That is not to say that we were ignoring the needs of multiple retailers, but they are a small group of perhaps 30 people (maybe more now if you count the discounters) who make the decisions and they are often seeing their suppliers every other week.  I am sure they do still come to the fair because it’s a great place to see many of their suppliers at one time. But, if we are going to be appealing to thousands of potential buyers, we need to focus on independents and that is precisely what we did. We developed content for them specifically with buyers’ lunches on the Monday, with Sommelier’s Tuesday and seminars specific to their needs. Consequently, our independent retail and our on-trade audience grew by 11% and 12% respectively last year. 

There was a positive response to this new approach and the result was the show grew from 550 exhibitors in 2013 to 750 last year – an overall audience increase of 11%.  I asked him what plans he had for 2015 to build on this success.

“The obvious change this year will be that we are in the Grand Hall, rather than the National, Central and West halls - it was a bit of a warren last year! So this year we are in the Grand Hall and the signage will be much better.”

“In terms of exhibitors this year, we developed quite a broad group of UK-based wine businesses.  In 2008 we had 88 UK importers, distributors and agency houses taking part, as well as, of course, lots from overseas. This year, we have over 130 UK businesses. We wanted the new Wine Fair to be extremely credible and extremely focused on the UK market and this will be the biggest British wine business diversity we’ve had in 35 years of the fair, even though it’s only 65% of the size it was in 2008. 

 “There is, of course, space at the Wine Fair for all types of wine business. We are not exclusively looking for one type or another, but there does seem to have been a slight move away from the branded and a move towards businesses that have broad portfolios of wines typically retailing in the mid-tier to premium ranges. For a visitor audience it’s quite an exciting proposition to potentially speak to 130 different providers of wine in this country – from somebody who is a one‑man‑band, specialising in Armenian wine, right up to a national wholesaler, and everybody in-between.”

Ross confirms the show will feature again many of the specialist areas introduced last year – like Esoterica, with several new participating exhibitors for this year; and the  craft beer section, which will be much larger and with it’s own Hopsack theatre – as well as some new ideas.

A brand new feature for the 2015 show will be The View Tastings, in association with Octavian fine wine cellarers. This will be self-contained area within the fair, specifically for companies that deal in premium and super-premium wines.  The majority of exhibitors will be importers (either dealing purely in fine wine or with a fine wine portfolio) with a smaller number of individual producers too; all wines will have an RRP of £30 and over.  Access will be restricted to those with proven credentials in buying fine wine as well as key wine specialist media. Companies that have signed up to date include: Alliance Wine; Antinori; Astrum Wine Cellars; Flint Wines; Hatch Mansfield; Lea & Sandeman; Louis Latour Agencies; Penfolds (via Treasury Wine Estates); and Sogrape UK.

“We have been keen to create a stand-alone fine wine feature into The Fair for a while now, and over the last couple of years have had encouraging feedback to support this from both visitors and exhibitors. The Fair’s scale has put-off some of this sector from exhibiting in the past, which is understandable when their target customer is relatively niche. The View Tastings will allow fine wine exhibitors to put their high end wines exclusively in front of decision makers from top merchants and restaurants from around the UK and internationally, in a secluded area, whilst benefitting from being part of the UK’s largest drinks trade event, and we are, of course, delighted that Octavian is supporting us in this new venture.”

“We have also recently agreed a partnership with Wine Grapes (the book by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz published in November 2012 which has been described as the Bible of grape varieties) and we are going to basically be introducing an annual celebration of two grape varieties.  We had thought about highlighting a country each year but we felt you can alienate more people than you include, particularly in this market where it’s such a diverse supply group.  So the idea is two grape varieties – one well known and widely planted and the other one less so – alternating red and white each year.  This year we’ll launch with Syrah and Grüner Veltliner. There will be a hundred wines being tasted under the Wine Grapes banner with a competitive element and judging by the IWSC, which José and Julia will both be involved in, plus a masterclass on the Geniality of the Parentage.

“We have launched something called Wines Unearthed as well this year, which is a new village of pods for wine producers from around the globe…looking for UK representation. There will also be a seminar for them on the Sunday night about how to export to the UK, which Robert Joseph is chairing.

“I think that, with all these the new elements combined with the content that we have always organised – the Masterclass Industry Briefings and the Speakers’ Corner etc. – we can be confident that we have, by some margin, the most content run at any wine trade event anywhere in the world; despite the fact that there are other events out there now which are significantly larger than the London Wine Fair. 

“There has always been a big emphasis on education and experience at the Wine Fair and that’s something that we wanted to take from the previous incarnation of the event and develop it for the future. I believe 2015 will see the most diverse selection of importers that the fair has ever had and, yes, we are very, very pleased about that; and let’s see what happens come May – but it should be a fantastic event,” he concludes.

17 March 2015