Cooking up a storm

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Liverpool Food and Drink Festival is growing. Stand Out chats to Denise Harris, managing director of SK Events, organiser of the annual foodie extravaganza…

When you build a dedicated fan and visitor base, as an organiser you cannot keep generating the same content year on year – your fans will soon be turned off and you risk losing their interest. That’s the very message Denise Harris, director of SK Events, is asserting. Organisers cannot be complacent, food events do not guarantee footfall and content must be fresh, she says. And she should know. For the past four years, Harris has managed Liverpool Food and Drink Festival, a food paradise for the locals and a Mecca for those seeking out Liverpool and the North West’s finest.

The Liverpool Food and Drink Festival is a week-long event that celebrates the  city’s food and drink offer – from high-end restaurants to quirky cafes, local producers to talented chefs. Held over seven days, the event was originally devised out of a requirement to align Liverpool with other regional food capitals and is kicked off with a increasingly popular launch event at the city’s Sefton Park.

During the start of 2008, Liverpool City Council and The Mersey Partnership identified the concept for a Liverpool Food and Drink Festival, after previous attempts to form one from some of the city’s bars and restaurants. SK Events was appointed to run a festival from concept to delivery.

Harris explains: “The concept was to run an all inclusive festival that would appeal to all ages and showcase the high standard of food and drink that the city is now capable of delivering. We began by engaging with the owner/managers and recruiting the outlets for both launch day and the week that would follow. A steering group of key people from various sectors was established and the requirements of the visitors were identified. Once we had these businesses on board, we used the benefits of having a festival website to be the spine of the festival with every aspect of launch day and theme week chronicled and easily identified, ensuring maximum visitor attendance to both.

“We also identified that to secure maximum exposure, there needed to be two extensive marketing campaigns running simultaneously – one to the restaurant and bars and one to the potential attendees to launch day and diners for the themed week. We continue to do this with the use of a range of different media activities, which are aimed at journalists located around the country at an array of different outlets.

“This activity has continued to grow at a rapid rate and over the past three years, the festival publicity has grown enormously.”

Big and fresh

More than 40,000 visitors attended the festival launch day in Sefton Park in 2010 while many more attended events and themed days in restaurants, bars and pubs across the city. SK Events anticipate in  excess of 50,000 visitors in 2011. Research from last year’s event revealed that the average age of a visitor is 28, 84 per cent of visitors are from the Merseyside city area, visitors have an above average income and there’s an equal split of men and women in attendance.

This year the event will kick off with two launch days on September 3 and 4 and will be followed by five days of city wide promotions from the best restaurants and bars. The extended launch weekend is in response to public demand, with now over 80 of the city’s top bars and restaurants exhibiting.

Continues Harris: “Visitor feedback has led us to look at a new layout for the event. Previously, restaurants and bars were laid out in a horseshoe configuration, forming a courtyard where a marquee sat. Visitors could buy their food and drink and then sit in the marquee and listen to live, local bands. Now the concept is so big we’ve had to populate the centre with more zoned areas and create aisles that visitors walk up and down.”

Harris is currently looking at increased security to handle the extra visitor numbers and larger site, and also at the infrastructure needed to launch an event in a public park. A masterclass theatre, children’s area, lifestyle marketplace and entertainment stages will all feature.

But has the recession affected the event in any way?

“If we look back at last year’s festival, to have 40,000 people coming to just the launch event alone was truly amazing and proved that people still wanted a quality food and drink offering even during the recession,” comments Harris. “The restaurants and bars that took part were witnessing a considerable up take in footfall during festival week and we believe the same will happen again in 2011.

“Because the food and drink offering currently available is almost saturated you have to be clever, keeping standards high. It’s a compliment to me when people say ‘I didn’t expect to see that in Liverpool’. It means we are competing with the best.”

Harris and her team attend rival events, keeping an eye on the market to ensure that the latest food and drink trends are represented at the festival. Children under 14 can attend the event for free and adults pay just £4 to enter. Celebrity chef demonstrations are charged at an extra cost, an extra revenue stream for the event.

“We are still looking for sponsors and are doing fairly well on that front. It costs £100,000 in infrastructure to put the event on so in order to be sustainable we have to generate extra revenues. We do have a good track record for return on investment, which is far in excess of investment. The festival has always been reliant on valuable sponsors – many of which have supported the festival on an annual basis over the last three years. They see the value of being involved in an event like this and we believe that’s why they keep coming back time and time again.”