Hilton Beijing Wine Fair: Why wine importers should join

1000 bottles of wine in the hall, 1000 bottles of wine... (Photo: Hilton Beijing)

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I talked to the Hilton Beijing today re the upcoming annual wine fair, set for November 12, and we will again do a giveaway contest. The call reminded me that I have yet to publish my post about the fair last year. You can find it below — this hopefully kick-starts me to finish more than 100 overdue posts.

I have attended the annual Hilton Food & Wine Experience in Beijing every year since 2005 and I consider it the best chance to try wines from a wide range of local importers. But I always meet a few distributors who question whether or not the event is worth it. After all, how can they measure the impact on sales? Why put their wines up against those of their competitors? Do the kinds of people who attend even buy wine? And given that quite a few free tickets circulate, would most people show up if they had to pay rmb230 for a ticket? I’m a wine consumer, so perhaps I am missing something, but from my perspective the Hilton event seems like it is worth it for most distributors. Seven thoughts on this.

1. Every week I get a handful of emails from people who want wine recommendations. (Yes, people actually ask me for suggestions.) These range from a bottle for a special occasion to picks for restaurant menus to orders for corporate events. Since it involves so many wines and distributors, the Hilton wine fair has a significant influence on what or who I recommend, and that can translate into sales. And I am just one person, a minnow in terms of influence and spending power compared to some people who go to this event.

2. Some distributors focus on the on-trade sector, meaning they sell wholly or mostly to restaurants, bars, and hotels, not to retail outlets. Since I can’t get their stuff at Carrefour, 7-ELEVEN, and the like, it would make the Hilton event a good opportunity for customers to try products from importers such as East Meets West and Wine Culture.

Why does this matter? If I see several kinds of Sauvignon Blanc on a menu at roughly the same price, I am likely to pick one I have tried and liked, because wine prices in Beijing are high (due mostly to tariffs / duties of ~48 percent and the restaurant markup piled on top of them). And the Hilton is where I try a lot of wines. With the above example, after the last Hilton event I would consider ordering Springfield Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Links Concept) or Graywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (The Wine Republic) if i saw them on a menu.

Given this, I was surprised that quite a few distributor reps, when an attendee raved about a particular wine, had no idea which bars  and restaurants stocked it. Wouldn’t telling people they can get that tasty Shiraz at Restaurant X lead to sales and thus mutual happiness for customer, distributor, and restaurant client alike?

3. I can meet consumers and see what they like. So can the distributors.

4. In the past, some distributors have complained about the cost of participating in the event yet sent employees who didn’t know the prices or countries of origin of their wines, who were too busy chatting, texting, or talking on the phone to notice that visitors needed service, and so on. If cost was such an issue, why were these distributors figuratively pouring money down the drain by being unprepared or even packing up early or being stingy with pours? On that note, it was nice to see that most distributors were relatively well-prepared last year and that their employees did a good job.

5. I have heard some distributors say they don’t want to be up against their competitors’ wines? Doesn’t this happen all the time on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus? And if your wines aren’t there, doesn’t it mean people are trying your competitors’ products but not yours?

6. Also, there are concerns raised about the number of free tickets. There are freebies around but I do not think this indicates a lack of willingness of many people to pay but an incentive given to distributors to participate, that is, they get a certain number of free tickets to give to clients, acquaintances, and so on. Sure, if someone can get a free ticket, they will take it, but I believe a lot of them would have paid anyway and know plenty of people like this. It’s rmb230 to access more than a thousand wines. That is a good deal.

7. Finally, even if someone gets in for free, he or she still represents potential sales. I saw plenty of trade people, who got in free, from veteran, new or about-to-open restaurants and bars last year, including places as diverse as Maison Boulud, Migas, Atmosphere, Fubar, American Café, Cabare and Annie’s. On the public side, there are all kinds of customers who buy wines at retail or at restaurants, or both. Even if all of these people got in for free, it doesn’t lessen the reality that they represent a good deal of spending and branding power.

I’m not disputing that for some distributors the event might cost too much or not translate into sales, and I freely admit that I come at this from a consumer angle, and that as a consumer I am happy to have an annual event that lets me try so many wines for so little money. But it does seem that for those companies who arrive prepared and with decent wines, especially if those wine are not widely available in retail outlets, this event seems to make sense.

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