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The Future of Food Festivals

Food festivals are hugely popular. Anyone willing to buy a ticket is granted access to an array of popular chefs, myriad cuisines, new flavors, learning sessions by renowned experts, etc. It’s a feast (literally) for the senses and brings together a concentrated group of like-minded consumers for at least two jam-packed days of indulgence. So, it would follow, that food festivals are also ideal places for brands to be present and show alignment with top talent, the latest trends and the early adopters who attend to seek out the hottest new flavors or experiences.   

But for consumers, is the high ticket cost worth the experience when all is said and done? Did they actually get to see their favorite culinary personalities? Did they try foods or beverages that were truly forward-thinking? Did they learn something new about the culinary world?

And, with the growing popularity of food festivals, comes overcrowding – both by attendees and brand sponsors clamoring for a piece of the attention. At a certain point, it stands to reason that brands would begin to wonder whether their high sponsorship cost is worth the 10’ x 10’ space they’re provided in one of the dozens of rows of tables that fill a foot-ball-field-sized tasting tent packed to the brim with ticket holders aimlessly grazing from sample to sample, without actually stopping to discern one bite, chef, restaurant, sponsor or booze brand from the next.

So as both brand marketing consultants and chef talent mangers, we have two challenges to consider:

  1. How can festivals improve the attendee experience so that they feel the high cost of their ticket is worth the experience?
  2. How can we ensure our brand sponsors are setting up activations unique enough to break through the clutter and stand apart from the rest?

These aren’t necessarily questions we have immediate answers for but we are constantly talking through various, creative, never-before-considered ways to work within the common festival structure to ensure our clients are achieving their goals and walking away feeling confident about their sponsorship ROI.

Food festivals have come pretty far, and they really do open up the culinary world for everyone to access. But when we try to be all things to all people, or slot in a sponsor or restaurant brand to satisfy every single palate, we move too far away from what these festivals are really about: Targeting true food enthusiasts and making high-quality, flavorful foods approachable for those who are curious to experience them.

There are myriad questions we should be asking about the festival format and whether it’s working as well as it can. And it may be! Or, when it comes to the sponsor experience, maybe it’s time to rethink things entirely. Tasting tents are hot, sweaty and exhausting for chefs and brands alike. The effort may not be worth the minimal and hard-to-track impact they’re making with potential new customers. But, what if there was a more intimate way to connect with early adopters or influencers? What if we could curate food shows for proven food enthusiasts by working with companies like OpenTable or Yelp to gather data around the most discerning and influential food-connected consumers?

Or, is it time to consider incorporating large-scale wow-factor food experiences into existing music or sporting events like Coachella or the PGA Tour? We already know customers are more likely to attend an event if high-quality food (or their favorite chef) will be present. So should we move away from food-only festivals and consider combining them with other aspects of pop-culture? Consumers aren’t one-dimensional, so perhaps our activations shouldn’t be either.

These are the questions we are constantly asking of ourselves and of our industry. At The Connect Group, brand and consumer experience is always top-of-mind. Our ideas are unique because we understand that each brand has a different story to tell and a different potential customer to reach. And the ways those customers connect to food, or through food, are vastly varied and different. It’s our job to understand these differences, but at the end of the day, the commonality is that everyone eats. Everyone is food-connected and can be reached through that lens.

We continue to push boundaries, ask questions and collaborate with our festival, brand and chef partners to brainstorm bigger, better approaches with the goal of one day completely revolutionizing this industry – program by program, sip by sip and bite by bite.  

Music Tastes Great

It’s no surprise that there is huge overlap with live music fans/festival goers and the millennial food-connected crowd (what TCG calls the “foodie 2.0”). Music festivals and concerts have been incorporating high-quality food options for some time now, but last night’s Sports Illustrated Summer of Swim Fan Festival took the blending of food and music to an unprecedented level: the main headliner also curated the entire food experience.  As much as we would love to see Keith Richards flipping burgers or rolling up burritos before a Stones Show, these things just don’t happen.

But, last night, not only did Queens rapper Action Bronson perform a high-energy, two-hour set at the new Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk, he spent ten minutes tossing brand new kitchen appliances out to the crowd. He was also responsible for single-handedly curating the collection of food vendors for the show’s “F*ck That’s Delicious” food truck village, at which Bronson himself even served up a personally-prepared dish called "Under The Boardwalk Spicy Clam Sandwich” inspired by the famous Nathan’s menu. Other options in the village included lobster rolls from Red Hook Lobster, Gary’s Cheese Steaks, creative grilled cheese options from Gorilla Cheese NYC, and empanadas from Nuchas.

Bronson worked as a cook for many years in several New York restaurants before making it big in music. His lyrics often reference favorite dishes and feature shout-outs to his favorite restaurants and culinary idols like Daniel Boulud. He is called the first “foodie rapper” and to say that the guy has cross-over appeal is an understatement. He is one of the biggest rappers in New York and has toured the world with the likes of Eminem. He also hosts two shows on the VICE channel: F*ck That’s Delicious (which follows his culinary adventures on tour), and Action Bronson & Friends Watch Ancient Aliens (the show’s premise needs no further explanation).

The event began at noon with a brand activation by Sports Illustrated featuring some of the industry’s top swimsuit models playing games on the beach and interacting with fans. This swimsuit event-turned-concert/food festival in Coney Island yesterday may have been one of the most unique brand activations I’ve ever experienced.

Fans were engaged from noon to midnight with constant activity and experiences to satisfy all the senses. It had a meaningful impact on its target audience (millennials – me), and was a great example of how festival creators can elevate the fan experience.

We know that consumers are more likely to spend money on an event they know will feature chefs and high-end fare. And while the culinary and musical talent might not always be the same person, if festivals start thinking differently about these kinds of added-value elements, they will sell more tickets, reach larger audiences and ensure their brand partners get a lot more bang for their buck.