Food festivals: what’s in it for the operators?

07 November, 2019 by
Madeline Woolway

Festival is the word. Whether attached to film, writers, music or food, it’s indicative of good times — for festival-goers, at least. But for the businesses who participate, it requires forethought and skilled execution to pull off a successful appearance.

Hospitality speaks to a culinary festival organiser, a restaurateur and the operators of an independent brewery to get the lowdown on what makes large-scale events worth the effort.

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The Organiser
Hannah Pike has been pioneering food festivals across the globe for more than 10 years. The managing director of IMG Culinary (the food-focused arm of IMG Talent) heads up the team that brings the various Taste festivals and Western Australia Gourmet Escape to life each year. Multiple cities around the world have been hosting Taste festivals since the first launched in London in 2004, with Sydney and Melbourne now home to their own ‘Taste of’ events.

The latter, which rebranded from Margaret River Gourmet Escape this year, started in 2012 with the aim of spotlighting what was then a relatively undiscovered and remote region. In her time, Pike has seen the food festival scene explode and evolve in equal measure, learning how to execute different styles of events along the way.

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Gourmet Escape, which is set to be held over 10 days from 8–17 November across the regions of Margaret River, Perth and Swan Valley, is a unique beast. “We were running a business working with the best chefs from cities around the world, and generally speaking, all of the events were in major cities,” says Pike. “We came up with the idea to take those people and invite foodies to engage with them in a really beautiful place.”

As a global business, they could have launched anywhere — Pike says the team looked at places such as Cape Town and the Napa Valley — but Margaret River was chosen for its combination of coastline and vineyards. The remoteness is a major drawcard and a major logistical hurdle.

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The high-profile chefs and wine talent IMG Culinary work with are notoriously busy, and for those travelling from Europe, America, Africa and South America, attending means taking the best part of a week out of the kitchen. “That’s also the allure of it,” says Pike. “The phone reception can be pretty bad and these chefs are never exposed to this sort of thing; they’re always connected.”

In place of digital connectivity is a meeting of the minds, with participants forming bonds that go beyond the festival. “There’s not that city setting where they can all go off and dine separately; they’re living together, basically, in a really beautiful lodge,” says Pike.

The IMG Culinary team organises ‘downtime’ activities to keep talent entertained, showcases what the region has to offer and facilitates networking. Think foraging, whale watching and jet skiing. Everything is taken care of from travel and accommodation to personal contact and drivers.

The result is a waitlist of chefs and hospitality professionals vying for a place on the line-up, which brings its own set of challenges. “It’s hard because you have to say no, but you still want to [have] a really great relationship with that person,” says Pike. “We basically have this huge matrix of everyone who has attended before and everyone who we would like to attend.”

From the matrix, hospitality professionals are chosen based on how they fit into the year’s philosophy and whether they have something new on the cards, such as a book or a project. Pike lists Josh Niland as the perfect example. Not only has the chef just launched his first book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, he’s also leading the way when it comes to sustainability. The combination makes him the right fit for the World Gourmet Symposium.

A new addition to this year’s expanded program, the symposium is devised to put behind-the-scenes discussions on a public forum. At past events, guests were enjoying dinners cooked by chefs like Peter Gilmore, who were discovering new ingredients. “There were natural after-hours discussions happening and a lot were really important conversations that needed to be had,” says Pike.

Along with a desire to attract more business travellers, the culture of knowledge sharing made the decision to start a trade forum easy. It’s an indicator of the way food festivals are evolving. ‘Talks’ are becoming as popular as sampling a range of different dishes. What else can we expect from food festivals of the future? “I think there’s a trend towards more niche subject matter,”  says Pike. “Events solely about cheese, coffee, tea, Pinot — it could be anything. The other thing people want is a unique experience: a collaboration, a one-off — something they can’t get all the time. But it’s not possible without time and money.”

Things are almost too good to be true at the moment, according to Pike. “There are sponsorship… to [put] the infrastructure of a restaurant on a beach in the middle of nowhere doesn’t make sense unless you have 70 other things with it.” So will the seemingly saturated market bottom out any time soon? Pike thinks it’ll be a matter of evolution rather than dissolution, with consumers increasingly interested in the community provided by festival-style events.

The Restaurateur
Community is the reason restaurateur Palisa Anderson takes time out of a busy schedule running family businesses Chat Thai and Boon Cafe in Sydney as well as Boon Luck Farm near Byron Bay to participate in a multitude of festivals. “I think we did Melbourne Food & Wine Festival first,” says Anderson. “Then we started doing more, [now]… gosh, what haven’t we done?”

Anderson pins her businesses’ prolificacy at food festivals around the country on a family attitude. “My Mum’s tradition is basically to say yes to everything and then deal with the consequences later — provided they gel with our ethos and what we’re doing,” she says.

Beyond that, there are two rules — the endeavour needs to be profitable or good for the community. That’s why the team participates in events held by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “We do it because it’s a good way to be part of the community,” says Anderson. “Carriageworks’ Night Markets are great, too because we get to hang out with our colleagues from other restaurants and see what they’re doing.”

Food-oriented events such as those held at Carriageworks, as well as the Taste and Good Food Month programs, allow venues to reach out to new customers. “It’s good for diners who’ve never eaten with us to get a little taster,” says Anderson. “I guess that’s what a lot of these festivals are about, even the symposium-style ones like the Restaurant Leaders Summit [now Hospitality Leaders Summit] or the World Gourmet Symposium; they’re a gateway.”

Anderson is a regular on the ‘talks’ circuit, taking to the stage for discussions about the restaurant industry as well as farming. While taking part requires time and stretching resources on Anderson’s behalf, there’s usually a return on investment in knowledge capital. “Getting to speak and listen to other people talk about what they do can help you on your own journey,” she says. “It keeps you in touch with the industry and connects you with people from different facets of the business.”

To this end, Anderson will take to the stage with Alla Wolf-Tasker as part of Gourmet Escape’s Consuming Conversations program. The duo will discuss how the industry can educate consumers about food production and farming. But Anderson is concerned these events are preaching to the converted … “[Food] really does cross a lot of boundaries and overlaps with many other festivals that now have food components, which is fantastic, but we’re often talking to the same people,” she says. The problem is the air of exclusivity that’s become attached to many festivals, be they food-themed or arts-based. “It just means limited people are able to join in,” says Anderson.

Festivals are major productions that attract high costs, Anderson concedes. She hopes there’ll be more support from all levels of government in the future, so the
benefits can extend further afield.

The Brewers
Festivals are so important to Young Henrys’ brand DNA, the Newtown brewer and distiller created a mid-strength beer to meet New South Wales legislation. The State government made it apparent that most first-year music festivals would only get a mid-strength license, so The Stayer was born.

True to its name, the beer has embedded itself in Young Henrys’ roster of regular brews, just like festivals have embedded themselves in the company’s brand strategy. Before they had the option of partnering with the festivals that attract such regulations, founders Oscar McMahon and Richard Adamson and brewer Dan Hampton had an idea. “We were sitting around talking about how much great food, booze and music comes out of the Inner West [in Sydney] and we went, ‘Let’s put on a festival’,” says McMahon.

Together with local businesses including Porteño, Mary’s, Bloodwood and Cornersmith, the team closed off a small street in Marrickville in 2014, drove in a stage truck and threw a party that featured a line-up of local bands. “It was only 2000 people — standing room only — but, oh my God, we moved through some booze,” remembers Hampton. “We were a two-year- old business, but we thought, ‘Hey, we can do this’.”

So, the first Small World festival was a success. The following year, they decided to take another crack. Taking on feedback from attendees at the 2014 festival, they decided to go bigger and better, but landed themselves in a financial pickle. “People wanted comfortable areas,” says McMahon. “So we had this big, beautiful, natural amphitheatre in Sydney Park. But people were too relaxed, no one was going to the f***ing bar.”

They hit so many hurdles and money was lost. “It took a lot out of our budget,” says Hampton. “It made us realise we had to focus on what we wanted our core business to be.” Five and a half years after the second festival, McMahon reveals the amount lost is less than they would pay now to partner with a festival. It’s a worthwhile cost for Young Henrys on a number of counts. “It’s hard to really pinpoint one thing; you very rarely do something and see an immediate spike in sales,” says Hampton. “But we’ve grown consistently for seven and a half years.”

According to McMahon and Hampton, festivals of all stripes, from food and wine to music and arts, have been significant brand-building exercises. “Young Henrys is a company that’s connected to the hospitality industry, obviously,” says McMahon. “We appreciate producers and makers and our
peers from other parts of the industry. The person who goes to a wine festival or a music festival is someone willing to spend money on a cultural event — they’re our people. They’re probably going to be open to trying our beer and would appreciate our company ethics and values.”

Early on, there were limits to how many festivals fit with the Young Henrys brand. It wouldn’t make sense to lay down money for an event if people couldn’t buy their beer locally the next day. Only once they were in pubs and bottle shops in the surrounding area would an opportunity be considered. Now, with a national presence, the company looks for regions they want to see growth in and targets festivals in these locations. “If you partner with the right one, they treat your brand respectfully in their communications and they present your beer in a nice setting,” say McMahon. “It’s a really good way for people to interact with your product.”

For Young Henrys, pricing is a crucial sticking point and among the key stipulations they negotiate early in the process. Hampton recounts an experience with a steep price point that saw the brewer cop flack from festival-goers. “We’ve learned to ask more questions and get as involved as possible,” he says. They were able to implement the process when preparing for Download Festival. “We thought, if it’s priced at $10 a tinnie [for mid-strength] compared to Coopers being priced at $6 last year, for example, we’ll cop it,” says Hampton. Accordingly, prices were set at $8 — a result that put Young Henrys at ease.

The easy conversation is emblematic of a wider trend toward more collaborative relationships between festival organisers and participating businesses. “We’re moving into a time where festival organisers are really engaged,” says McMahon. “When we say we know the sweet spot for how our beers should be priced, they actually listen and take it on board.”

When it comes down to it, the investment is worth every penny for Young Henrys. McMahon and Hampton agree the brand has grown quickly thanks to the momentum of festivals. “I think one of the best ways to get people to drink your beer is what you call ‘beer in hand’ experiences, and festivals are a good way to get in front of that many people in one hit,” says McMahon.

One last piece of advice: find the right festival to speak to ‘your people’ and everyone wins.

Main image credit: Lauren Bath