Visitor numbers at the London Wine Fair fell by about a third this year, but organisers maintain the policy of charging most people to attend was the right one.
The entry fee was first introduced in 2019, the last time the show took place before two years of Covid disruption. The charge is intended to reinforce a sense of value in attending, and to discourage many of the visitors who treat the fair more as an opportunity to access free wine than to engage seriously with exhibitors.
Brintex, which runs the fair, says visitor numbers dropped to 8,822 people over the three days. But it was braced for such a fall, given the ongoing problems created by Covid, as well as the threat on day one of a Tube strike. The decision by ProWein to rearrange its show for the London Wine Fair’s original dates in June also caused problems, with several exhibitors being forced to choose between the Dusseldorf event and the UK fair.
Some of the independents who spoke to The Wine Merchant were disappointed that they had been charged to attend a slimmed-down show, with many not qualifying for any financial help with travel.
Many indies received codes from exhibiting suppliers which enabled them to enter Olympia for free, and Brintex allocated a number of bursaries to assist with travel costs.
John Chapman, managing director of the Oxford Wine Company, had not realised there was an entry fee. “When I saw that I almost fell off my chair, and I probably said a few expletives at the same time,” he says.
“But thinking about it, it’s actually not a bad thing in principle because that in itself kept out a lot of people who are not helping the overall scope of the fair.”
Chapman says he pays to attend other major European wine fairs and believes London should retain the same policy.
“The plus point was that it wasn’t what the London Wine Fair had started to become, which is like a clone of Imbibe Live, where you have to fight your way around and fight to speak to somebody,” he says.
“Having been to all the big fairs in Europe this year, it felt on the functional level a bit like those, which is a really big compliment. With the exhibitors I spoke to, it was a lot more productive.”
He adds: “It wasn’t so much the people, it was the exhibitors that weren’t there which was the bigger shame. There weren’t as many of the big hitters that are normally there. I think it’s something that will change – as soon as the dates were moved, a lot of people couldn’t reschedule or get the right people to man the stands.”
Graham Northeast of Bonafide Wines in Christchurch, Dorset, admits he planned his trip to the fair “with some trepidation” because of the “prospect of having to pay to get in and no chance of a cheap train ticket”, and “talk of some of the major players staying away”.
He adds: “We booked for Tuesday and Wednesday. Upon arrival it almost seemed that we had arrived two days before the event and that it was still to be set up – much smaller than previous years, but more diverse, I would say.
“What struck me as interesting was the amount of space devoted to the more unusual wines: Georgian, Indian and Ukrainian, to name just a few.
“All in all, a good show – they just need to fill the upstairs [Esoterica] area again.”
Paola Tich of Vindinista in Acton says: “I think the organisers have a tough time trying to put on a show that tries to be all things to all people, especially in straitened times.
“I went purely because I needed to try a couple of wines and thought it would be good to say hi to a few people. I have the luxury of being local.
“In support of the event, I think the masterclass list was a bit meatier this year – I just didn’t have time to go to any.
“For future fairs, I would like to see a better focus on practical areas, grouped together, easy to locate at Olympia and on the programme. For me, the London Wine Fair should be more of a discussion, learning and networking forum.”
• The quiet charm of the London Wine Fair – read Graham Holter’s column in the July edition