LIWF: what does the future hold?

How was it for you? As the spittoons were emptied at the end of the 2010 London International Wine Fair, it was the question on the lips of many of the show’s 1,100-odd exhibitors. Opinions ranged from the very positive to the grumblingly negative, as opinions often do. Depending on whom you choose to believe, the 30th edition of the UK’s most important trade event was a coruscating success, a costly, time-consuming disappointment, or somewhere in between.

Before I give you my opinion of the 2010 LIWF, let’s examine a few figures. Visitor numbers were slightly down to around 13,700, but given the economic climate and the threat posed by the Icelandic ash cloud, they were respectable. Among the exhibitors, there were a handful of high-profile absentees (Gallo, Constellation, Brand Phoenix, Thierry’s and Berkmann), but a greater concentration of smaller players made up for this to a certain degree. Overall, however, the total space taken was down from 15,000sq metres to 14,500sq metres.

In some respects, you can see why several bigger companies are questioning the validity of participating in trade fairs. Renting space and constructing a stand is expensive – by the time you’ve paid your staff and (in some cases) put them up in a hotel for three days the costs can easily run to six figures – and some have concluded the money can be better spent elsewhere.

More significantly, they are only really interested in a small percentage of visitors. “A successful fair for me is one at which I show my wines to the buyers, journalists and sommeliers who are important to my business,” one big company managing director told me. “Even if you factor in a handful of overseas visitors from Germany, Holland, Canada, the US and Scandinavia, that adds up to 100 people at most. I’m in regular contact with many of them already, so why do I need to spend £100,000 to see them at the LIWF, especially when I’m surrounded by my competitors?”?The LIWF is about more than pandering to the wishes of the big companies, of course. It also has to cater for the interests of other sectors of the trade: on, off and (way down the great chain of being) the odd wine hack.

From a personal point of view, the 2010 LIWF was one of the most interesting I can remember, with dozens of good seminars, tastings and industry briefings, and the opportunity to try a broad range of unfamiliar wines from countries such as Turkey, India, Russia and Croatia. The Wine Gang’s Top 100 open tasting (with which I was involved) was extremely busy, too.

Given all that, why wasn’t the LIWF busier? The venue at Excel is good (if a little inaccessible) and the quality of the show was better than ever. “When you think that there are 30,000 retail and 100,000 on-trade outlets in the UK, the numbers are disappointing,” said Michael Cox of Wines of Chile. “If we think that we are the centre of the wine world, then we must do more collectively to encourage people to come to the LIWF. If you look at something like London Fashion Week, it attracts far more professionals. It’s the focus of that industry, and that’s not true of the LIWF.”?Is it worth putting on a trade fair for just 13,700 people? When you think of the millions spent by exhibitors to have a presence, the question is certainly worth asking. Stand space is particularly pricey (the LIWF’s £280 per sq metre charge is higher than both Prowein’s and Vinexpo’s, both of which own their show grounds) and so is a stay in London.

So why come here to talk to a handful of people, as is sometimes the case? Certain areas of the fair are very busy, but others are almost empty for large periods of time. You could almost see the tumbleweed blowing through the Italian Zone on Thursday afternoon, for instance.

Some radical voices believe Brintex, organiser of the LIWF, would do better to organise a consumer fair as part of a national wine week.

“The trade is crying out for and desperately needs a major consumer event to help improve consumer engagement in our category, enhance brand loyalty and promote genuine interest in new producers,” one importer told me. “A national wine week could unite retail promotions and an integrated media campaign, and generate real excitement around wine. That would be much better than a trade fair.” My position is that we need both. The LIWF is a great opportunity for the wine trade to get together to talk and taste. But it also needs to attract more visitors to keep exhibitors happy and make the economics viable. If you were there, and especially if you weren’t, I’d love to know what you think.