Ever since the pandemic, hardly a week has gone by without a major news outlet speculating on the scale – or lack of it – of office working. In parallel to predictions of the ‘death of the office’, the end of major trade shows has been regularly forecast. ‘Too expensive’ and ‘waste of resource’ are just two of the more polite explanations.
Somebody needs to tell the 140,000 people who took the trouble to rock up to Anuga in Cologne last month. For sheer scale and breadth, it takes some beating. A veritable tide of humanity descended on the nearly 8,000 individual exhibitors over a period of five days. I positioned myself at the main entrance at opening time one morning. Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup final or Glastonbury for the festival are the only comparisons I can muster to describe the grim determination of delegates just as the electronic gates opened. Don’t stand in their way is my strong advice.
The UK exhibitor presence was impressive. The British Pavilion boasted a wide range of brands of all shapes and sizes and – on the days I was there – brisk visitor traffic. The AHDB stand in the meat hall was mobbed and the equivalent in the dairy hall was also doing good business. A 15-minute walk away, the peerless and indefatigable Sir Jim Walker presided over a characteristically expansive Walkers Shortbread presence.
The continued challenges posed by the Brexit deal remain significant for many and insurmountable for some, but there is cause for optimism. Shoppers in the European Union and way beyond continue to choose UK food and drink above others. Equally encouraging is the sheer energy of UK business in pursuing those markets. That too was very evident in all my conversations in Cologne.
We have a duty to match that energy with government contribution at all levels. The Department of Business & Trade already offers a huge array of information and guidance for exporters and – as importantly – those considering exporting. So, too, do the devolved administrations, many trade associations, a range of not-for-profit organisations and commercial operations. But the users and potential users of that information tell us they need it to be more accessible and action-orientated.
Similarly, there’s a wealth of different bespoke support available across the UK. Central government provides the DBT’s international trade advisers, the department’s regional teams, the export support services and the GREAT platform. Meanwhile, each of the devolved administrations has its own extensive programme tailored to the needs of business in their nation. One brilliant example is Blas Cymru, held last week. It provided a platform for more than 1,500 face-to-face conversations and 900 online ones between Welsh food and drink manufacturers and international buyers and distributors.
The help is there, but it needs to be better co-ordinated and publicised ever more effectively. This is all particularly relevant because next week is International Trade Week. Our national appetite for international trade is still there: the Brits were the largest national attendees at Anuga, checking out both export opportunities and imports. That’s necessary in a world where sources of supply are impacted by the ravages of conflict and climate change. It’s also a highly competitive marketplace: Ireland’s Bord Bia is best in class but the scale of the competition is evinced by the huge national support provided by dozens of governments with far less compelling food and drink offerings.
Trade remains the lifeblood of the food and drink industry and critical to the delivery of economic growth. That is why the likes of Anuga and Blas Cymru will endure. It’s also why our governments must continue to support the adventurous businesses attending these events.