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food festivals

The Rocking Food

The Rocking Food

I’m still winding down from the delicious, busy, and exciting long weekend that is the yearly South Beach Wine & Food Festival down in Miami. This was my fourth year heading down with the Connect Group and Chef Marc Forgione and over the years I’ve been to many events that range in theme and offerings. But the overall format of these events is generally the same: walk-around tastings with 30-40 different chefs/restaurants or a sit down dinner with multiple courses.

This year The Connect Group had the pleasure of activating King’s Hawaiian sponsorship events during SOBEWFF which included The Art of Tiki on Friday night and Bacardi on the Beach with Beats by Rev Run & DJ Ruckus. Now, I’m not knocking the standard food festival events, they do a great job of marketing the chefs/restaurants and promoting their sponsors. And obviously people love attending them! But as with most things, the more different and unique an event is, the more it stands out.

At first, Bacardi on the Beach seemed like it would be like one of the standard walk-around food festival events. After an hour or so though, it became apparent that this was more of a standout event. It wasn’t just that the crowd was younger and more diverse than the other tentpole events. What made this event truly stand out was that the star wasn’t the food. The music was.

Bacardi on the Beach was a music event that happened to have food. And that doesn’t mean the food wasn’t important. If anything, I would say that the focus on the music enhanced the food even more. I find that at a lot of the tasting events, eating can seem like less of an enjoyable experience and more of a sport as some people are determined to run around and try as many dishes as possible. Sometimes it can even get ugly. I was once elbowed in the face by an older woman for a dumpling, no joke. At Bacardi on the Beach, people were dancing and singing and having a great time. I know it might be a stretch to say this but I truly think the dancing and working up a sweat and overall fun/light mood made people really enjoy what they were eating.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been to a non-food festival with a heavy emphasis on food. Now in it’s seventh year, Governor’s Ball is a 3-day music festival that takes place on Randall’s Island. The food definitely isn’t an afterthought at Gov Ball. It gets it’s own “lineup” and the vendors are all curated by popular food website The Infatuation. A couple of years ago I also had the chance to go to Life is Beautiful, a 3-day art and music festival in Downtown Las Vegas. Life is Beautiful takes a different approach to food and actually makes the chefs part of their programming with a dedicated cooking demo stage and chef-hosted elevated food stations in the VIP areas.

Though food at music festivals isn’t a new thing, I’m always looking at new and exciting ways to combine food with lifestyle events or re-invent the typical food festival experience. Sometimes I think we forget that it doesn’t always have to be JUST about the food as there are lots of ways to inject a memorable food experience into other fun activities.

- Cassie

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.