Beyond the Glass: The Enduring Value of Wine Trade Fairs

Spring is in the air but while the vines are taking it easy, the wine world seems to be rushing from one trade event to the next. But are wine fairs and exhibitions worth the hassle or are they a thing of the past as some would like us make believe?

What is the value of trade fairs?


Paris, Düsseldorf, Verona – when the vines slowly, slowly come back to life after a brief period of hibernation, it is high times at the European trade fairs and exhibitions. And as we have some big hitters out of the way and prepare for the next round, I cannot help but ask myself whether it all makes sense.

Sure, wine fairs are prime venues for professionals within the wine industry to meet, exchange ideas, and foster new business relationships. They offer a platform for winemakers, vineyard owners, distributors, retailers, and other stakeholders to connect, which can lead to collaborations, partnerships, and sales opportunities. 

 But they come at a significant price both in terms of cash you have to cough up to attend and the time you may have make to do so.

I have to admit that if I looked at it from a strictly personal perspective, with the emotional value such experiences always seem to bring, I would have to say, yes, absolutely.  Just for the educational aspect, I’m always excited. Not only for the feature seminars, workshops, and tastings led by experts in the field but the conversations with the producers, it’s always an opportunity to deepen my understanding of wine, which sometimes feels like a bottomless pit.


Are you ready to rumble?


Just as in any blind tasting, I know that I need to eliminate the emotional element and focus on the facts, but trying to make up my mind – out of curiosity but also to understand the way the industry may move – and listening to the arguments made by the different stakeholders, I cannot help but feeling like the referee of a boxing match, standing in the middle of the ring and if I don’t move out of the way quickly, they are coming right at me. 

In one corner you find those industry commentators and a growing number of statements that proclaim the beginning of the end. First, it was the virtual revolution, though this has lost steam as it is difficult to use online platforms at scale; now, it is the overall downturn with significant losses in sales across the board and the dire times ahead.

In the other corner yet, you have plenty of voices that are still in full support, that emphasise the strength of this fair or that exhibition, though we must not forget the ties between wine publications and the events that either directly or indirectly benefit them, so you might expect positive arguments.


The truth is in the numbers?


Maybe the truth is in the numbers though. The fifth edition of the Wine Paris & Vinexpo Paris in February has seen a growth in total exhibitor numbers to 4,074 from 48 countries and international exhibitors grew by 53%. Visitor numbers were also higher this year with a solid increase by 14% as opposed to last year’s event for an total visitor number of more than 41,000 and big gains in international visitors, up 41% year-on-year.

If these numbers sound impressive, they are eclipsed by those of ProWein. After the doors closed on Tuesday, about 47,000 trade visitors from 135 countries had attended the 30th anniversary of the world’s biggest wine fair with 5,400 exhibitors from 65 nations.

Next up will be Vinitaly at the beginning of April and if last year’s numbers are any indication, it is going to be another busy year without question: The 2023 edition saw 93,000 visitors in 4 days with almost a third from abroad; more than 4,000 producers exhibited their wines at Vinitaly with 143 countries of origin. The international element though is clearly only a secondary thought and Italy is full in focus as anyone who has been to the fair will confirm.

Yet, a more accurate indication that the business model still works might be the number of new events springing up, which, of course, is in part due to new trends such as natural wine fairs. If it didn’t work (and their organisers didn’t make money from it), why would anyone bother?


The road ahead?


Are wine fairs a thing of the past then? Probably not and that’s not only because of the current success either true or perceived of the events big and small. Eventually, trade fairs and exhibitions, especially in the wine world, and the effects they have are difficult to replicate. True, there are a number of arguments that speak against attending: cost of time and money or the carbon footprint of travelling around the globe to attend. Digital marketing through Social Media and other tools continue to grow in importance, the impact on the changing consumer behaviour and market dynamics cannot and should not be disregarded. Eventually, the sheer number of events and the resulting saturation is another aspect that comes into play.

Yet, where the world and maybe even more importantly how would you be able to taste so many different products, meet so many relevant people in a relatively short amount of time. As you see, it is not as easy as putting a sock over a bottle to suppress the emotional element when we are considering the pros and cons of wine fairs and exhibitions. When I contemplate my absence from ProWein this year due to other engagements, I hardly think of the time and money I saved (not even considering another public transport fiasco I avoided) but the things I missed out on. When I think of the upcoming Vinitaly or other events I will hopefully attend over the coming weeks and months, I feel like a child, full with anticipation.

And when it’s all over, I will be grateful for the great conversations I will have had and the excellent wines I will have tasted and think: until next year!

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