Catering For Higher Expectations

Article by Allan Glen. As published in ‘Festival’ Magazine, February 2018.

Once upon a time it was a greasy burger and a warm beer, but things have come a very long way since those primitive times when festival organisers were still finding their way. Now the word premium pops up across a wide range of food and drink offerings, and providing them has become a skilled profession. Allan Glen reports.

Anyone wanting to know how the collection of customer data is influencing the live music market need only listen to concessionaires operating at festivals.

As William Hunter, director of Streamline Leisure explains, information gathered at bar and food stalls can have a major impact not only on where audiences are gathering and what is being served at the event, but also who appears on stage.

“This information can change everything, from predicted crowd flow, to monitoring trends in food and eating habits,” says Hunter. “It can event show how audiences are reacting to the acts who are playing.

“After all, if audiences are being food when the headliner is on stage, then a better choice may be needed the next year.”

Concessions is a market that has grown exponentially over the years. From the smallest grassroots event up to the largest festival, food stalls and bars have switched from being an afterthought at an event to rapidly becoming one of the fastest growing sectors in the business.

While festival-goers may have been content with popping-off to a burger bar for a bun and a warm beer in between watching acts in the past, now nothing but fashionable gins, hipster food and the latest line in colourful fruit cider will do at some events.

It is not only data collection that is impacting on the market. Increased sponsorship, improvements in other areas of technology and a more discerning customer are all factors fuelling the growth of concessions.

“Premium-isation is the major trend,” says Peppermint Bars founder Adam Hempsenstall. “Customers are seeking out their favourite sloe gins, or the newest craft cider and are prepared to pay that little bit more for it.

“Our data shows that spend per head increases at shows where there is choice as the customer doesn’t feel trapped into buying products or brands they may not normally consume.”

Adapting to such trends is one of the major challenges for firms such as Peppermint, which delivers catering solutions to dozens of events, including the Isle of Wight (cap. 45,000) and British Summer Time (65,000) in London.

It also has its own ’boutique arm’, that encompasses The Wondering Wine Company among others, to service the premium side of the wider events market, such as Royal Ascot and Henley Regatta.

“The challenge is drawing the line,” says Hempenstall. “Clearly we can’t pour 20 different gins, like a normal high street bar could, at a 65,000-capacity music festival, so it’s about getting the right balance.”

Meanwhile, he says other challenges within the sector are easier to dispel.

“There is still a belief that festivals are expensive places to visit, and it’s true. However, we have data to show that customers are increasingly prepared to trade up to premium – whether it’s a gin or a lager; if you stock it, they often trade up to it.

“That said, we still have a challenge with rising alcohol duty every ear, rising labour costs and at the same time trying to keep food and beverage prices down, whilst till maintaining that great deal for the promoter.”

To counter costs, Peppermint works with a wide range of sponsors.

“We’re now able to bring some great sponsorship partnerships to the table through our in-house brand activation agency, Equals,” he says. “This now only adds investment into the event, but adds value through brand activation.”

The effect of technology across business has been transformational and its impact is being felt within the concessions market, too, with online iPad-based tills and embedded in the working environment at the festivals Peppermint works with.

“We’ve been using online iPad-based tills for six seasons now,” adds Hempenstalls. “We can’t almost remember a time without. They give us great real-time access to ales data which we share with our clients and sponsors. In these six years, we’ve seen credit/debit card usage increase from five-to-six per cent to 60-to-70 per cent at some events, with contactless increasing from less than two per cent to more than 35 per cent in this period.

“Reducing the use of cash is in everyone’s interest – from the customer, to the festival owner, to the bar operator, and this is a big focus for us.”


Tech factor

The aforementioned Streamline Leisure director William Hunter agrees that the main developments within the sector are all based around advances in technology.

“Some of the advances have been seen in a lot of other sectors years before due to the reliability of the internet,” says Hunter, whose company supplies bar and catering concessions to events such as Boardmasters (50,000) and NASS Festival (15,000). “It is only now we are seeing them phased into festivals.”

Advances in internet services have also helped.

“Having a reliable internet service onsite is something all in the industry have had ti struggle with over the past five years. In 2016-2017, however, we saw this conquered with various solutions, from 4G routers to hardwired lines installed. It seems anything is possible.”

In such a competitive market, it’s important for firms such as Streamline to remain at the top of their game, as Hunter explains.

“As the festival industry grows, everyone is in a constant battle to create fresh ideas to be the next, or at least, this year’s big hit,” he says. “The image of the festival and our clients is, however, as paramount as ever.

“Having caterers who can deliver great food is good. But, having a caterer who can deliver great food from within a unit that looks like a modern piece of art is better.”

Having that all important IS[ can also help – as can a healthy dose of forward planning.

“We believe in such a crowded market there are many aspects that make a company stand out,” says Hunter. “Delivering a concessions package isn’t just about the event on the day. It is the untold hours that go with it behind the scenes, from the lengthy application process to hand selecting the type of food and drinks.

“Then, of course, there is selecting the stalls required for a specific event, before moving on to checking and double-checking every caterer’s documents – and there are a lot – to liaising with local authorities.

“From the first ,eating to the de-brief, we keep the same team and contact throughout, so we have a good working relationship with the clients,” he says. “We feel building a good relationship with our client enables us all to grow and develop together.

“Year on year we have a better understanding of the events and client’s goal and vision.”

Coming back to technology within the sector, Hunter believes computerised till systems have revolutionised the concessions market.

“EPOS till systems are a must,” he believes. “There are also some great iPad and tablet systems out there, although, like most things, they don’t come cheap. As the whole world seems destined to be cashless, the festival scene must keep up. It’s simple: if you have the ability to accept cards for payment, then you will never miss a sale.”

Varied diets

With more than 20 years’ experience on concessions, Blue Whiting of Lost Planet has worked for most of the major festivals in the UK, including Glastonbury (140,000), Reading (90,000) and Leeds (80,000).

Recent trends he has noticed include a growing demand for healthy food, with more people expecting more variety, something Lost Planet has years of experience in providing.

“We are and will always be a strong contender for providing good quality concessions management due to having so much experience with festivals spanning many years,” says Whiting. “Experience is a very hard thing to beat.”

He also notes that those working in the sector are acutely aware that festival-goers now have more opinion on what’s on offer.

‘Social media has given the public a platform to review their festival experiences like never before, so, of course, nobody can get away with having poor quality concessions anymore,” he says.

This, he adds, has worked in Lost Planet’s favour.

“We specialise in finding the very best in street food, world food, gourmet food offerings and market traders that fit to any festival demographic. Therefore, we are being approached by organisers wanting to up their game in this area.”

Wine trade

Other challenges across the sector include the event devaluation of the pound, which is hitting those suppliers who import goods from abroad, as Paul Scaife, founder and director of Event Wine Solutons (EWS), explains.


“Since the [Brexit] referendum, the value of the pound has declined by 20 per cent agains the euro,” he says. “While this doesn’t mean that the price of wine has increased by that amount, the elements of the bottle that are traded in euros – the wine, its bottle, capsule, label and carton – have increased significantly.

“The remaining costs, such as transport, storage, re-distibution and excise duty, are all paid in pounds in the UK. About 50 per cent of the products’ costs have risen by the 20 per cent currency devaluation.”

Working with bar operators at large-scale festivals such as BST, Isle of Wight and a wide range of smaller gatherings – among them Blissfields (2,500 and Neverworld {5,000) – EWS now provides a high-end service to more than 140 events.

While the festival is taking place, the company is very much hands-on, working with the bar operator to establish the product range required for the different areas of the event.

“The bar operator is responsible for presenting the wines to the customer, but during the cooers of the show, we would usually try and attend to carry out some market research,” he adds.

Such an approach, adds Scaife, can be beneficial for all involved. “As we are in control of the blending process for each product, we can react to consumers’ taste experiences.”

Another direct challenge for EWS is countering waste management. As such, at events it uses bottles made of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PE), allowing the bottles to be fully recyclable as part of a closed loop.

‘PET is the most recyclable of plastic containers and is sought out for its adaptability for processing into new plastic products. Therefore, subject to its being separated in the waste stream, the production loop can be closed through its recycling and re-use.”

Call for clarity

Another active business in the sector is Creativeevents, which supplies large volume bars, boutique bars, street food and high-volume food to events such as Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Boardmasters and Godiva (150,000 visitors).

Closer scrutiny between parties is having an impact on the sector, as procurement director Luke Barlow explains.

“We have found that clients and promoters are expecting much greater clarity and openness of costs and what we as an operator earn from a festival ,” he says. “This has worked to our benefit, as we have always operated in a fully suitable manner and there have been occasions where our clients have been surprised at just how tight our margins are.

“It has also often resulted in us working in a much more collaborative way in order to drive increased return for both parties.”

According to Barlow, businesses working in the sector are also having to adapt to an ever-changing market in other areas too, with bar operators needing to increasingly find new ways to balance the risk that high ticket sales levels at events are no longer guaranteed.

“There is huge competition between music festivals to attract customers and this has a direct impact upon the bar operator, as commercial agreements are based around attendance,” he says.

“The bar operator increasingly needs to find ways of maximising sales, wherever by the introduction of pre-ordering, providing new and exciting products, or through the use of technology to speed service.”

When it comes to the latter, the company’s operations director Lee Pierce says that while serval festivals have experiments with fully cashless or RFID systems across their bars and concessions, it is likely to be a few years before this is seen as accepted practice across the sector.

“What is becoming more of an expectation from promoters is a fully-integrated EPOS system that allows live reporting of sales, increased speed of service that drives a higher spend per head and the option of both contactless and cash payments.”

In summing up, Peppermint’s Adam Hempenstall believes such an increased competition among events will ultimately help grow the concessions market.

“There will always be changes in the market and you only get to hear about the festivals that fail,” he says. “But there are some fantastic growth stories out there, such as Love Supreme (8,000).

“Yes, there is more choice now than ever, and that does lead to saturation in some sectors of the market. But that effect is driving up expectation from the consumer which we enjoy, as it pushes us harder.”