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The food festival phenomenon

27 September 2012
The food festival phenomenon

As consumers become increasingly interested in fresh, local, artisan produce, the number of food festivals in the UK is soaring. Elly Earls finds out from the brains behind some of these culinary extravaganzas how to set your stall out

Ten years ago, you'd have been extremely lucky to find a food and drink festival in your area on the last weekend of September. Fast forward to 2012 and you'd be hard pressed not to be within throwing distance of a reasonably well-established foodie extravaganza. Indeed, on that weekend alone this year, there is the choice of Taste Cumbria, Cornwall Food & Drink Festival, York Food & Drink Festival, Southbank's Real Food Festival, Cheshire Food Festival, Norfolk Food & Drink Festival and Canterbury Food & Drink Festival, to name but a few. And that's just one weekend.

But why have so many local food festivals started cropping up since the turn of the millennium, and why, particularly in the past five years, have they become so popular? For Nick Mosley, director of Brighton & Hove Food & Drink Festival, which runs for 10 days every April and September, the global financial crisis has had a huge impact on consumers' enthusiasm for these sorts of events.

"Since the recession hit, people have been looking more for quality food experiences - foraging, farmers' markets, farm shops and street food - rather than the fine-dining experience that has been so prevalent for the past 25 years," he says. "Consumers are finding comfort in going back to their roots and discovering the simple pleasures of fresh, artisan, local and downright interesting produce. The narratives of food and drink products have also become important to brand-savvy consumers, who perhaps once would have spent their income on exploring the world but are now having to make do with our own island."

Vanessa Scott, director of Strattons Hotel in Norfolk and organiser of the Brecks Food & Drink Festival - which launched last year and is situated in a nationally recognised landscape that includes the biggest lowland forest in the UK - agrees. "It's about telling that story to a much more sophisticated audience than 10 or 20 years ago," she says. "Businesses like mine are really keen to be part of that agenda because it is about showcasing what makes our area unique."

Indeed, for Ruth Huxley, managing director of Cornwall Food & Drink, food festivals are "win-win-win" situations; the cities and towns in which the events take place, consumers and local businesses such as growers and hospitality operators all stand to benefit from being involved.

Because of this, food festivals are seeing more and more businesses jump on board every year; it's simply too good an opportunity to miss out on, Mosley believes.

"With the recognition that we're in an economic depression for the mid- to long-term, hospitality businesses have identified that they need to get smarter with their marketing and customer retention," he explains.

"Food festivals and personable involvement in consumer-facing events are a key mechanism to achieve these ends."

"It's such a great opportunity to raise their profile," Huxley agrees. "They're in front of a huge audience and the PR attached to it is massive. It's not just the day that matters; it's the fact that they're on the website and we're making sure they get media coverage, too."

choose carefully

Yet, an event that isn't representative of the entire food economy of a particular area is unlikely to garner the media interest or consumer support necessary to benefit either the hospitality operators or growers involved. It's therefore essential to think carefully about which exhibitors to include.

"In Brighton, we make it our business to get under the skin of the local food economy and to understand and nurture its make-up, not just the run-up to and during the festival periods, but also throughout the year," Mosley says. "We focus on finding a good balance combining local growers, producers and restaurants alongside entrepreneurs and start-ups from the local region."

For Huxley, it's also essential to have a mix of well-established and fledgling businesses represented. "Of course we have our top gourmet names, but we also like to celebrate the rising stars because it's an industry where you've got throughput all the time," she notes. "There's a very friendly network within Cornwall where successful businesses encourage the younger and newer businesses."

Live events are a particularly effective way of promoting both start-up and established businesses, and it's rare to find a food festival these days without at least one demo theatre. But live shows don't have to be limited to chef demonstrations. Just a few of the interactive experiences that take place every year on the food festival circuit are: hands-on workshops for children; wine-tasting and cheese-grading masterclasses; Michelin-starred chef demonstrations, which have been extremely successful at the Ludlow Food Festival; cooking competitions; and even more unconventional activities like cheese bowling.

Quirky events like these are perfect for including on a Facebook fan page or Twitter feed, but impromptu social media posts certainly shouldn't make up the bulk of an effective food festival marketing strategy. While the Twitter feed of Brighton & Hove Food & Drink Festival, for example, is one of the strongest in the city, the organisers of the event also work all year round - across various media - to promote the already popular festival.

"On a local level, we work hard year-round to maintain the voice and presence of the festival through local press stories and comment, activities such as our new Diners Card promotion, effective partnerships with key stakeholders and the constant building of our social media," Mosley explains.

spreading the message

For Clare Millar, co-ordinator of the six-week long Norfolk Food & Drink Festival, which runs from 1 September to 7 October this year, the event's website is also a key part of her marketing strategy. "It's very dynamic and we update it daily," she notes. "People also have the opportunity to upload their own events, which I have to approve as co-ordinator, so it's a one-stop shop for information.

"In addition to that, a number of events throughout the year are critical to promote the festival, the largest one being our county show, the Royal Norfolk Show, which happens at the end of June, giving us a great lead-in to the festival."

National promotion is also crucial, as one of the main benefits of a food festival is the number of visitors it can bring in. Indeed, tourism is often the reason food festivals were established in the first place. Brighton & Hove Food & Drink Festival, for example, was founded 10 years ago by local hotelier Roger Marlowe because he identified that food tourism was a growth area, and now the twice-yearly event brings in 160,000 people per year and has an economic impact of around £4.1m.

It's for this reason that the food festival phenomenon shows no signs of going away. For many consumers, tourism no longer involves travelling halfway across the world; a trip across the country to discover an interesting area of countryside, try some locally-sourced dishes or learn from a Michelin-starred chef is increasingly attractive.

"Coming somewhere like the Brecks can be a magical experience," Scott concludes. "Areas like this can certainly compete against the rest of Britain and the world."

food festivals
food festivals

Representing the whole spectrum of hospitality

Cornwall Food and Drink Festival
Cornwall Food and Drink Festival
At Cornwall Food & Drink Festival, currently in its ninth year, managing director Ruth Huxley always tries to make sure that the whole supply chain is represented.

"Although consumers go to a food festival to eat good food, see chef demos or have a nice day out, there is also a huge commercial and trade development element to it," she says. "In Cornwall, we have a fantastic range of produce and we like to make sure that's represented at the festival, so we can attract not just consumers, but trade buyers."

The whole spectrum of hospitality businesses is also represented at the three-day festival, and despite the fact that businesses are charged to appear at chef demos, they continue to come back year after year. "For me, that's the proof that it does have benefit for them," Huxley notes. "It's seen as an endorsement of their business for them to be there, and in return for charging them, we try to make sure they receive great value; they get a lot of PR out of it, we have a really good theatre and we sell the seats."

Demonstrators certainly don't need to worry about an empty theatre, as the attendance of the Cornwall Food & Drink Festival more than doubled between 2009, when Huxley came on board, and 2011, from 20,000 to over 40,000. "Attendance hasn't grown as quickly since then, simply because we can't fit any more people in!" she says.

Putting the county on the map

Norfolk Food and Drink Festival
Norfolk Food and Drink Festival
Eight years ago, the Norwich Food Festival was launched in an effort to put Norfolk on the map as a foodie destination. Today, following its tremendous success, it has evolved into the county-wide Norfolk Food & Drink Festival and has become the longest event of its kind in the country, running for six weeks.

The overarching festival includes flagship events such as the North Norfolk Food & Drink Festival, the Aylsham Food Festival and the Brecks Food & Drink Festival.

"It's a huge amount of work, but when you see the benefits and realise how many people want to be a part of it, you know there's a need for it and it's worth doing," says organiser Vanessa Scott, who is director of Strattons hotel.

The Norfolk Food & Drink Festival also plays host to almost 1,000 smaller events that take place across the county and are run by local hospitality operators and producers. These include: Brasted's Fish & Chip Supper (with all proceeds going to a local lifeboat charity); Lloyd Addison's Moveable Feast (a multi-restaurant dining experience which raises money for Parkinson's Disease UK); and the Norfolk Tapas and Jazz Night, featuring famous jazz bands.

"We track the number of businesses that engage with us every year and each year we have more and more," says festival co-ordinator Clare Millar. "We try to encourage hospitality operators to think about what would work for them. If you've got a small café with one member of staff it might be easy to develop a festival sandwich using local produce, whereas if you've got a much larger set-up, then you might want to put on a special evening showcasing local cheese or wine. Whatever they do, we stipulate that they need to demonstrate their commitment to using local produce."

10 tips for setting up a food festival

1 Link up with a local farmers' market. This is a great place to start because the likelihood is that this will already attract regular customers.

2 Build a community of growers, producers, restaurants, media, stakeholders and festival-goers so everyone feels like they're in it together. This is the only way you will achieve long-term success.

3 Know who you are. You need to be an effective brand on paper, online and at the event itself. This will differentiate your event from others.

4 Only invite quality producers to be a part of your festival. Whether you're focusing on local or gourmet food and drink, you must be discerning over who participates, even if it means less income in the short term.

5 Prepare to work hard. Early mornings, late nights, knock backs, fall-outs and sore muscles are all part of the fun. If you want an easy life, food events are definitely not for you.

6 Double your budget. When planning for your food event, write down a figure, then double the amount of time and money that you expect it will require, as that will easily be the case.

7 Don't think you know everything. Be open to other people's ideas; the chances are that if you pool your thoughts, you'll create a much better event.

8 Develop a marketing strategy. You'll ideally need to involve both local and national press, use social media, create a website and promote your festival at other events.

9 Before you get started, decide precisely what you want to achieve. Do you want to start a food festival just for the hell of it or are you serious about promoting your region? Once a food festival reaches a certain point, it will only survive with someone professionally managing it, thinking about risk assessment and insurance and looking for sponsors and investment. Starting out with a group of interested people who want to pool their resources and volunteer their time is great, but it can only go so far.

10 Don't count on the weather! It will probably rain so make sure you have the event on solid ground (rather than a park or a field), which has good access for vehicles.

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