Case Study: Exeter Festival of South West Food & Drink

A three day food event fronted by Michelin chef Michael Caines MBE, attracting 15,000 people over the May Bank Holiday

A tight site on a slope with one track access hasn’t stopped the growth of the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink, which is now in its 15th year. The event celebrates the South West’s culinary talent and includes three nights of music at Exeter Castle. We talk to Sandra Sullivan of PS8, a specialist food and drink events company that has project managed the festival for the last 10 years.

Chef cooking with fire at outdoor festival
Describe your event and how many people it attracts

The Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink is a celebration of the rich food culture of the South West of England with a focus on local, artisan producers. It is an annual public ticketed event which takes place over the May Bank Holiday weekend, and offers a great day to indulge in top-notch South West food and drink, a number of cookery demonstrations, plus workshops, over 100 producer stalls, live music throughout the day and hands-on activities for children.
In addition to the daytime food festival, we also host the Exeter Beats live music evening events which take place on three consecutive nights with top bands playing throughout the night, street food stalls to enjoy and the festival bar open until late.
An outdoor event over three days and three music nights, the festival attracts around 15,000 visitors across the weekend.

Explain a bit about your venue and its history
The festival takes place right in the heart of Exeter in two adjoining sites; Northernhay Gardens and Exeter Castle. Northernhay Gardens is a public park managed by Exeter City Council, which is a key partner and works with us to ensure the gardens are accessible and suitable for the event. Exeter Castle is where we host our live music, street food and festival bar and is accessed both from the gardens and directly from the main high street in Exeter. Following nearly a thousand years of Crown occupation, the Exeter Castle building and its courtyard now provide a unique venue and a perfect backdrop for the festival.

Cooking demonstration at a food festival
What is the event’s history?

Launched in 2004, the festival has grown considerably and has established itself as a vital part of life in Exeter and the South West. It celebrates the rich food culture of the South West while bringing together local producers, the region’s best chefs, and the food loving public. Led by Michael Caines MBE, the renowned chef from Lympstone Manor Hotel, the festival has gone from strength to strength and offers three great days for foodies and families alike. PS8 have been project managing the event for the last 10 years.
How does the relationship work with the venue you hold the event at?
It is important that the festival, as a community event, engages with all stakeholders, including the venues. We work through our planning and risk assessments with them to ensure that responsibilities are clear and any issue are identified in good time.

We have an interesting challenge in that Exeter Castle is both a venue and a residential building! This means that our team and all our contractors need to be respectful of residents and ensure that there is strong communication in advance to highlight issues around our set up, opening hours and break down periods. We also need to find them somewhere to park their cars given their usual car park becomes our music stage!

Northernhay Gardens does not have the space for parking on site and only has a single width path through it. We work with the venue to ensure our plans do not damage the gardens. Our team have perfected the logistics for managing vehicular access on site and has secured spaces in a nearby car park with Exeter City Council to help with the flow of vehicles.

How did you find applying for permission to run the event?
Exeter City Council are strong supporters of the event and we work closely with their team during the planning of it to ensure risks, site safety and emergency planning are coordinated across the various stakeholders.

We apply for a premises licence to allow us to sell alcohol through the festival bars, and importantly to allow our local gin distillers, beer and cider companies to offer tastings and sell bottles to take home and enjoy.

Sound in a city centre venue needs to be considerate to all. We ensure that festival publicity leaflets are circulated in key residential areas close to the city centre and that the event is well advertised locally. Our sound technicians monitor sound throughout the event and we have telephone contact with the City Centre management team that is able to contact us in the event of any concerns.

Festival attendees in front of

How have you planned the layout of the event and what structures do you use?
The geography of our sites is challenging from an event organiser’s perspective. Northernhay Gardens is probably best described as a banana shaped public garden, accessed from either end via a single path, and with a severe slope at one end. Our team produces accurate scaled site plans to plot the locations of all features. We work with a marquee supplier for all of our main features, including our three large producer marquees, the largest of which is 15mx9m. We hire a large tipi for one of our main sponsored areas plus a special music stage for our Exeter Beats music events.

During the planning stages, we walk through the site with our marquee company to check all feature locations, just in case any trees have been planted or have grown too much!

How did you research and source your marquees, flooring, bars etc?
Over the years we have built a strong network of contractors that are now key partners in the delivery of the festival. Each year we review at least one of these key services and tender the service to ensure that the festival is still getting value for money. Given the South West credentials of the festival, we source all suppliers from one of the South West counties where possible and are often approached directly by potential new suppliers.Chef Michael Caines holding two fish at food festival

What entertainment do you offer and how did you choose and source it?
The entertainment throughout the weekend is delivered by our key partners and producer contacts with relevant content created around the local food theme.

The festival’s key feature is a cookery theatre with individual demonstrations from South West chefs, all hosted and compered by Michael Caines. There is a high demand from chefs to feature, and our contact book is well thumbed. We also team up with a local farm shop, Darts Farm, that runs a fabulous foodie programme throughout the weekend including talks, tastings and demonstrations such as butchery skills.

We offer some great hands on activities for children including cookery classes, pizza making and cup cake decorating.

Music has become an important part of the festival and we now offer local musicians the chance to play on our main stage throughout the day, before the main bands come on for our night time event. Sourcing bands is through social media shout outs and working with local music venues who have the expertise. We also contact the approved buskers list of a large local shopping complex.

What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
We split this contract into two, with power and lighting from one supplier and sound from another.

The power is all from generators and supplied and connected by our appointed electrical contractor.

The demonstration theatres have AV and screens that feature sponsor content and logos, plus live cameras that zoom in on the demonstrator’s work stations to allow everyone to see what’s going on.

Our evening Exeter Beats music nights are in Exeter Castle where our electrician adds feature lighting and festoons to ensure a festival feel.

How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
Due to the geography of our site, we have three entrance gates which poses challenges in terms of the resource needed to man each gate.

We have a team at each entrance scanning pre-sold tickets or selling tickets to new customers. All tickets are scanned to record total visitors, plus we have a manual click count on each gate, monitored at two hour intervals throughout the event and recorded in the site office.

Visitors are given a wristband once scanned to ensure that anyone without a wristband on site can be challenged by our security team.

What ground protection do you use for cars and footfall?
There is no room on site for vehicles during the festival open hours. All our pathways are concrete so ground protection is minimal. Our features sit on grass and have either a mat or solid flooring. We also have a contingency supply of matting to lay onto the grass in high volume areas in the event of wet weather.

Stretch marquee full of food festival attendees

How do you publicise the event?
Media partnerships are set up with leading food and drink magazines including Devon Life, Crumbs, Food & Travel Magazine, Food Magazine, local radio and the local newspapers. We create competitions to generate awareness of the festival with these media partners and create content for show previews to whet the appetite of potential visitors. In addition, contra deals are secured with tourist boards.

The festival has an excellent reach through social media including around 9,000 Facebook followers. We have a regular e-newsletter which is sent to around 8,000 subscribers in the weeks leading up to the festival.

A festival leaflet is produced and circulated to local addresses and through partners such as Riverford who include it in their vegetable delivery boxes for us. Posters and street banners are printed to help raise awareness too.

What challenges have you faced?
Managing the budget is every event organiser’s biggest challenge with the income from ticket sales always a best estimate and never a guarantee. We have moved to online advanced discounted ticketing which has helped drive pre-sales but most tickets are still an impulse purchase bought at the gate.

Our biggest logistical challenge is in organising a large event in Northernhay Gardens which has a considerable slope at one end and limited space for vehicle access throughout. Our set up timetable is a minute by minute list of who can access the site to ensure we control vehicular access and avoid gridlock. It’s now a pretty well oiled machine! The sloped site means that any structures have to have levelled floors which adds considerably to our costs, but does allow us to use the full extent of the gardens.

How have you financed the event and how profitable is it?
I am sure I don’t need to tell anyone that festivals are hugely expensive to put on and generating income to cover our budgeted costs is key. The festival is run on a not-for-profit basis, so any funds generated have been reinvested into the festival to add value to the features across the site.

The income generated is made up of sponsorship, participation fees and ticket sales, each of which are roughly a third of the total income.

We have a dedicated resource for sponsorship engagement and do get great support from local businesses who sponsor key elements of the festival and without whom the festival could not take place.Couple sitting on a giant deckchair at a festival

What are your plans for next year?
Our site is at capacity for features and space so our challenge is how to offer something new each year. We have had a bakery feature for the last few years, but for 2019 we will be hosting a “Live Better” feature in its place, focussing more on talks and demos on food and nutrition. We are also investing more in our evening music event to attract bigger name acts that will allow us to sell out the venue – and dance the night away!

In 2018 we trialled the use of reusable glasses in our bars to reduce single use plastic waste. The customer pays a £1 deposit for a glass which they get back when they return it. This was a huge success and is something we will be repeating for 2019.

Do you organise any other events?
PS8 Ltd is an exhibitions and events company, specialising in the food and drink sector. Our team work with UK food and drink companies to manage UK pavilions at around 12 international trade shows – but all undercover! We have a team working on individual stand design and build too, offering truly global solutions for individual clients across Europe, the USA and Asia.

What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
An event is only as successful as the effort put into planning, communicating and considering all eventualities. You should consider every decision made from the perspective of the client, the venue, the contractors, the visitor and with the safety of everyone in mind at all times. I like to walk through the event in my mind to visualise each zone, to ensure that everything has been planned, ordered, documented and communicated to those that it will have an impact on. I find it the best way to make sure nothing is forgotten or overlooked.

Setting up a stall at an outdoor event can be stressful for exhibitors. Ensure that access for them is as smooth as you can make it through detailed timetable planning and, if time permits, invest in an exhibitor planning meeting or webinar.

Be sure to greet everyone on arrival on site with a knowledgeable hello and show them to their space. Everyone wants to have a good time, so be warm, welcoming and available at all times. And enjoy it!

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Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink
4-6 May (Exeter Beats, 3-5 May)
Exeter Castle and Northernhay Gardens
Exeter, Devon


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