Participating in food festivals can connect your food business to a rich new market. However, making sure you come out on top requires the right planning and strategy. By Shane Conroy
It’s hard to picture, but when the lockdowns are lifted, there will be a big market of potential customers keen to try something new. And a logical place to reach a crowd quickly seems to be a food festival. Australians love food festivals. According to NewsLifeMedia’s Appetite for Life study, 42 per cent of us consider ourselves ‘foodies’ and more than half (52 per cent) of people aged 21 to 32 would rather go to a food festival than a music festival. Events booking platform Eventbrite reports a 47 per cent increase in food and drink events on the platform in recent years.
Numbers like that suggest Australia’s already healthy annual calendar of food festivals will not be going into decline anytime soon. But while it seems food festivals will have no problem pulling in crowds for the foreseeable future, is participating in food festivals worth the cost of entry for food businesses?
If you’re going to do it, do it right
Melissa Pepers, founder and business designer at business strategy firm Bonbo, believes so—if you do it right. “There are two main benefits for restaurants participating in food festivals—revenue and brand building,” she explains. “But there are some important things you’ll need to get right to achieve either of those things.”
Francis Loughran, managing director at global food and hospitality consultants Future Food, agrees that the right strategy and planning is critical for restaurants to reap the benefits of participating in a food festival.
“Participating in food festivals should not be a quick decision made on a whim,” he says. “You need time to think about which festival is a good fit for your business, what you’re going to serve and how you’re going to execute.”
Choose your audience
First and foremost is making sure that you’re choosing the right food festival for your business. Think about the audience the particular festival will attract, and whether this matches the market you’re targeting in your permanent venue.
“People have a lot of choice at food festivals, so if your concept doesn’t align with the festival’s demographics, you’re not going to take full advantage of the revenue or brand building opportunities,” says Loughran.
For example, a street-food based festival will likely draw a different crowd than a wine-based festival. And while a taco truck might be a hit with the younger demographic at a street-food market, it may fall flat with people expecting a more gourmet offering at a wine festival.
“But get that alignment right, and you’ll be more likely to maximise your revenue on the day and build awareness around your brand in your market,” Loughran explains.
Create an experience
Even if you get your demographics right, you’ll still need to do more than simply show up on the day. Pepers says you need to create an experience that will draw people in.
“Why should people choose your venue over a number of other choices they’ll have on the day? It’s crucial that your brand excites them,” she says. “You need to focus on creating a competitive advantage that will stand out in what is essentially a very crowded marketplace.”
Pepers explains that food festival goers tend to be foodies who are looking for something either on-trend or slightly ahead of the curve. They want food experiences that will surprise and delight them. But creating an experience is about more than what you put on the plate. “What is your brand story and how are you expressing it in your festival branding? Think about the complete experience you’re providing,” she says.
Know how to execute
However, all your efforts could come to zero if you’re unable to execute your grand plans. Loughran warns that bad reviews still apply at food festivals, and if you’re dropping the ball word will quickly spread around the festival.
“This will eat into your festival revenue and could tarnish your brand in the long term,” he says. “Long wait times, food that’s difficult to eat, and under-whelming flavours will all turn people off. To avoid that, you need to carefully select your menu items. Focus on high-margin items that are simple and fast to prepare, and are packed with flavour.”
Fine dining rarely works in a festival setting. It’s more about distilling the essence of your restaurant offering into a crowd-favourite format that’s widely pleasing and easy to eat like a burger, skewer or taco.
Don’t forget social media
While food festivals can be a great earner, don’t overlook the long-term brand building opportunities. Pepers says food festivals can be an excellent stage to create new fans and pull them into your permanent venue. “Social media is huge at food festivals,” she says. “Think about the visual element of your food and what you can do to make it more photogenic so people will want to share it. And make sure you have your social media accounts displayed predominately at your stand so you can build your social following and keep sharing content that will bring your new followers into your restaurant.”
Get that right and you’ll not only rake in the cash on the day, but also draw an engaged new crowd into your restaurant.