London Wine Fair sets out to change ‘hearts and minds’

With just two months before the 38th London Wine Fair, pre-registration for the show is up by an impressive 2,000%, organisers have confirmed, while exhibitor numbers are already ahead of this time last year, as the show’s new head sets out her vision to put the event back in the hearts of the trade.

Hannah Tovey, head of London Wine Fair

While the show has always been at the centre of the UK’s wine industry, this year’s event will be notable as being the first under the leadership of Imbibe Live founder Hannah Tovey. The founder of one of the UK’s biggest drinks shows – Imbibe Live – Tovey took over from Ross Carter as head of the London Wine Fair last year, having previously worked at William Reed Business Media, Wilmington Publishing and Decanter, all in a sales capacity.

For the past three and a half years, Tovey has consulted on The Wine Merchant magazine and worked with The Wine Gang on its series of nationwide festivals and consumer wine events.

As such expectations, and ambitions, are high, with a raft of new additions and changes in place to shake up this year’s event – which will take place at Kensington’s Olympia from 21 to 23 May.

Speaking to the drinks business last week, Tovey revealed that exhibitor numbers are now close to 300, an uplift of 20 compared to this time last year – a positive sign for Tovey’s maiden voyage.

Among the many changes made this year have been to the marketing of the fair, with a Valentine’s Day “love bomb” inviting members of the trade to “save the date” and pre-register their attendance to the fair, which Tovey credits with a 2,000% uptake on pre-registrations compared to this time last year.

Similarly, a striking new logo and brand identity marked the beginning of Tovey’s leadership, which has seen a completely new team, bar one member, assembled in order to realise her vision.

“It’s very liberating to have that and it also means that we don’t have any resistance to change,” says Tovey, speaking to the drinks business. “And that’s important when you are trying to change hearts and minds – the more psychological side of changing the industry’s perspective on the fair. So that has been exciting and liberating.”

Indeed, Tovey is not unaware of the fair’s chequered past, which has been known to polarise opinion. Adding to this, Tovey described this year as the “perfect storm”, with Brexit continuing to impact all aspects of a show, while poor harvests across Europe, and anticipated supply shortages, contributing to an already challenging climate.

This year’s show will once again take place at London’s Kensington Olympia

Undeterred, Tovey is embracing the challenges head on, bringing in a number of changes that she hopes will not only shift perception, but improve the quality of those attending and visitor engagement and in turn raise exhibitors’ return on investment.

“We have spent an awful lot of time listening to market research,” says Tovey. “We have interviewed exhibitors who have stayed with the fair, exhibitors that have left. We have interviewed visitors who have been coming as passionate loyal visitors and those who might have dropped off. We have tried to get a full perspective and by doing that we have had unbelievably diverse feedback.

“There are so many passionate stalwarts for the fair. People who know and understand the need for it, and there are people who say you have a tough job on your hands, that you are going to have your hands full and I don’t know what you can do to change it. There is negativity because this is the perfect storm this year. We can’t control the political climate, we can’t control Brexit personally, we can’t control the vintages that have been happening, or exchange rates and tariffs.”

Explaining her approach to this year’s event, Tovey referred to her personal experience of launching Imbibe Live at the beginning of a recession.

“Everybody said I was absolutely crackers and it was impossible and that there wasn’t space in the market for it, but it quickly became very successful with a real sense of purpose,” she said. “While you can’t change the context, there are ways to adapt and move within it and there are ways that, if you can change hearts and minds, to garner more support and my firm belief and the reason that I took the job is that there is a need for London Wine Fair, perhaps even more so now given the climate. It may be more difficult to achieve but that doesn’t make it less important or valuable, and that’s a personal belief that has driven me to do all of this.”

(Photo: Anthony Upton/London Wine Fair)

Among the many additions to this year’s fair include a Drinks Britannia section, opening the fair up more widely to craft beer, cider and spirits; a dedicated Innovation Zone, which will touch upon “everything from artificial intelligence through to the blurring of supply chains within the industry”, sponsored by drinks logistics supplier JF Hillebrand; and an Education Zone, sponsored by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which will be offering visitors the chance to take their Level 3 entrance exam on the day.

One of the biggest changes to the show’s line-up will be Champagne Live, a dedicated section of the fair hosted by Comité Champagne that will replace their annual tasting. The area will offer visitors the chance to taste wines from dozens of producers, accompanied by interactive live streams and Q&As with winemakers in Champagne.

“This project echoes one of the things that I’m trying to achieve with London Wine Fair which is that there are a lot of events out there. It does become difficult to get to everything and it is not in anyone’s interests for the fair to be in competition with anyone. Better if we can bring more things under the roof of LWF and make it a one stop shop for people. We know that tasting 70 odd producers under one roof is visitor catnip. It’s what people want and it will bring an audience with it.”

Champagne Live, a first for the London Wine Fair, will be reconfigured and opened to consumers in the evening, a move that Tovey admits is a “toe in the water” to see how consumer involvement in the fair might work in the future, drawing upon her experience in organising consumer wine events with The Wine Gang.

“There’s a big hall within Olympia that has its own entrance that I have my eyes on for future years,” hints Tovey, adding: “I think it’s a lovely idea and it really does add another layer in terms of return on investment if you are making the journey from overseas, which most of our exhibitors are. You want to maximise your exposure to a UK audience whether that’s trade or consumer, so we are really giving an amazing opportunity there to take advantage of both audiences.”

A full report on Tovey’s vision for this year’s London Wine Fair will be published in the April issue of the drinks business.

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