The organisers are promising bigger, better and cooler things but how will visitors take to the new ExCel venue for this year's London International Wine and Spirits Fair? Tim Palmer reports Wine is one of the fastest growing and most rapidly changing sectors of the drinks market, and this will be celebrated next week at the London International Wine and Spirits Fair. To cope with the fair's growth the event has this year been moved to ExCel, a purpose-built exhibition centre in Docklands. But this development has proved too radical for some in the industry, who have been reluctant to embrace the change. The chief bone of contention is the time it will take to get from central London to the new venue. Critics suggest that IFE's visitor numbers were hit when it moved to ExCel last year, blaming the downturn on transportation issues. Andrew Evans, director of LIWSF organiser Brintex, has a different view. He says: "IFE had a difficult time last March because this was right at the beginning of the foot and mouth crisis. This was crippling for the food industry and travelling was restricted. The Irish had to pull out of the show completely. "The wine industry is an international business and has no specific allegiance to London's West End, so the move to Docklands should not have a significant impact." To mitigate the transportation issues Brintex has negotiated with Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to increase the frequency of trains running to the show to every five minutes. Free shuttle buses have also been laid on from the show to Canning Town tube station to link up with the Jubilee underground line. Evans is also quick to point out the benefits of the new site, and there is no question that the fair had been outgrowing Olympia where it had been held for the past 11 years. Out will go the congested gangways and heat build-up which some years forced exhibitors to look for ways of cooling down the red wines. In their place, says Evans, ExCel offers wide aisles, air conditioning, better wine storage, glass-washing facilities and better provision of ice. He adds: "The show has always been a high standard and moving it to a venue that can match that is the best news we can offer. ExCel is purpose built for this kind of event. The experience is going to be new and exciting and it will be so much more comfortable and easier to work in. "The change of venue puts us into another gear compared with shows elsewhere in the world and the trade will look at this and wonder whether they have to go to any other wine and spirit fairs. This is the final piece in the jigsaw for the LIWSF." He points out that when the show moved from Kensington to Olympia at the beginning of the 1990s a new layout was established, and in the following decade visitor numbers doubled and the show gained international recognition. "Navigating your way through the halls in Olympia was becoming a tiresome business and it was not the best environment in which to taste and evaluate wine," he says. He maintains that ExCel will better cater for the bigger audience and the growing number of exhibitors the event is attracting. Last year 14,000 people went to see the 1,050 exhibitors and Evans reports the move has not affected pre-registrations of visitors, which are on a par with last year. "There will be a lot of people who have never been to ExCel, so it is new and untried and they don't know how to get there. About 80% of our audience is British and hates change. They don't realise how fast the event has evolved and how big the changes have been in the past six years. "It is not difficult to get to and if people don't study how to get there they cannot be serious about the wine business. The people who think we should stay at Olympia are 4% of the people we canvassed about the move. "ExCel is not in the middle of nowhere, it is just 25 minutes from Waterloo." Evans adds: "This is the right move for us in the long term. There will be hiccups and some people may be unhappy, but the dissenters will be outweighed by the people breathing a sigh of relief that we have made the move." In addition, key players have embraced the change with enthusiasm. Total space booked at the event has increased by 30%. Within that both Chile and Spain have boosted the size of their stands by 70%, France has increased its presence by 100%, and Italy is up 40%. At the same time Brintex has kept price increases to 3.9%, which is lower than rises of previous years. Sainsbury's wine director Allan Cheesman, who is a member of of the event's industry advisory committee, backs the move. He dismisses fears that people would be put off going to the show because of any transportation issues and says it is one of the best buying fairs in the world. He says: "Our buyers have a very heavy schedule of visits at the fair and it is an opportunity to meet a lot of the senior people in the business from around the world. "If there are any issues they could be around accommodation, because there are no hotels in Docklands. "And the lack of natural light could be a concern, but the artificial light is the best there is. "The air conditioning is a big plus and the size of the site will relieve the congestion that was building up at Olympia, where it was becoming a real challenge to get around." Distributor Vinoceros is increasing its presence at the show and marketing manager Lynda Mellor has only positive comments about the new site. "Everyone will have better access and the reduction in the press of people trying to get around will make life much more bearable," she says. "As a race we don't like change, but after the three days at the fair people will see it is a better environment." Adrian McKeon, trading development director at leading Australian producer BRL Hardy, is more cautious about the change. He says: "Our customers will soon tell us if they don't like it. Once we have done it the first time we will know what to expect. The event has become the most important wine fair in the UK and I think this year is going to be quite exciting." Western Wines new managing director Mike Paul, who chairs the fair's advisory board, underlines the commitment that has been made to the show: "This marks a major stage in the process designed to make the LIWSF the leading event of its kind and enhance the position of the UK as the most cosmopolitan and opinion-forming market in the wine world." {{FEATURES }}