Paul Scaife, founder and CEO of Event Wine Solutions, reflects on this year’s Association of Independent Festivals Congress, which took place on 1-2 November at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. 

The spirit of entrepreneurship was fizzing in Cardiff last week at the AIF Congress. The market for independent festivals is strong, buoyed up by the huge passion and commitment demonstrated by all who attended this event – we’re proud to be part of this dynamic industry.

My team and I had the pleasure as Friends of the AIF to showcase Event Wine Solutions at the event, which not only gave us the chance to speak with many of the delegates, but also to visit some of the sessions as well. The themes were universal: retention of independence, the future of the industry in a new landscape and wowing our customers with the unexpected.

These themes were developed in a wide range of varied addresses and debates, with the growing expectations of consumer experience and of the demand for quality being critical to the continued success of the industry. There was also much conversation about commercialisation, so that our events grow and prosper, to the benefit of the audience and those who put so much effort into making them the success they are. No doubt our friends at NOEA will be delving deeper into this theme at their own conference in Bath on 24 November.

Our contention at Event Wine Solutions is that consumer demand for ‘beyond the best possible’ is growing and that this will become the norm looking ahead. One speaker referred to the ‘festival die-hards’ getting increasingly allured to glamping, premium class toilets and moving away from the romantic grubbiness we all got into this industry for. Too true!

Food and beverage is a sector where this is very evident. We see it every day, hear the clear messages from consumers, and are pleased that this aspect of the events industry is embracing the opportunity. We’ve had to bring new products to market to constantly keep ahead of where consumers expect our wine quality to be – and we’re not alone. The result is a rush to exceed expectations and meet the demand for a festival being much, much more than a lineup.

We should see the ‘food and drink revolution’ at festivals, with its rise of street food and growth in demand for great wine (there I go getting parochial again), as not just as important as the great strides made in glamping, posh loos, RFID, welfare, inclusivity premium camping, but as a bulwark against the uncertainties of what lies ahead. Give consumers an experience they’ll never forget and, guess what, they remember it when they re-book for next year.

If we play this trend against the need for festivals to get better revenue, to ‘sweat the assets’ (as one speaker found it difficult to say!), this move to premium experience should be an essential aspect of any festival business plan. Great wine and food costs more to produce on site, but the consumer demands it – and are happy to pay. This is the ‘experience generation’ and they put high value on us getting it right. It’s something we can all rise to and then profit from, underpinning our businesses and securing a future for our events.

The AIF continues to have its finger on the pulse of the industry and it was a really great couple of days in Cardiff. Yes, we all take our own view of these events and maybe mine is skewed. But I don’t think we can deny that great experience is where our industry has always been and will continue to stay, and that commercial success will follow if we give our customers the very best we’re capable of.

I’m hoping wine will play its part, even if it is just one small cog in a larger machine facing a new and different world. Whatever happens in the coming years, it’s not going to be dull. Then again, nor are we!