Some thoughts on the vegan events and the current climate (Part 1- Challenges)

21st November 2023


Some thoughts on the vegan events and the current climate (Part 1 – Challenges)

Time and again over the last 2 years since we reopened for business after the covid closures that shut our events team down for 2 years previous, I have been asked why I think attendances and traders are down, why engagement is down with speakers and why nearly all the vegan events appear be struggling on every level.

Sometimes it’s even been ‘well it’s not a big as usual’ – ‘usual’ referring to precovid/brexit days which are a long way in the past now – as if somehow the ‘usual’ wasn’t 4 years back down the line and none of this had ever happened.

And yes of course it’s somewhat traumatic and stressful to manage an events company through 2 years closure and 2 years ensuing major challenges and significant downturn and so I have to manage that carefully too. Although I can truthfully say that right now am thriving and relaxed and no longer stressed to the eyeballs by the process. I’ve learnt to trust the process.

But people do want to know and ask me so often I thought it might help to write a few words on the subject as to maybe why the shows attendances have declined so markedly and what we can do about that to build our vegan communities back stronger and more effectively than ever. Some of these reasons will be more than obvious but also hopefully helpful and setting the scene for a turnaround and a regrowth.

Brexit has impacted on our traders and also contractors. Prices have shot up in some areas for traders and they have had to absorb them best they can. A crate of oranges for a juice bar might have cost a fiver 4 years ago coached in from Spain. Now it’s close on £20 for a crate airlifted from South Africa. Likewise in the contractor’s field – a skill shortage and delays in deliveries from abroad, and a sharp price increase in some raw materials has made the basic costs of shell scheme and suchlike escalate. There’s a multitude of other examples but in time that should all improve – we hope so. And of course we have lost a lot of our previous traders from outside the UK – pre covid we could expect up to 30 at Olympia, now that’s only one or two…that’s it. Its also made it tougher for traders to keep prices down and that has in turn impacted on attendance as traders – especially food vendors – adjust accordingly.

Covid obviously – what else is there to say? except long covid which sill impacts on a number of us and makes the whole 3 day affair of a big show at Olympia a very big deal. And public confidence is still returning for large indoor gatherings. That will change for the better as we progress hopefully.

Power Costs have been awful all round but especially so for business. And last October 2022 saw sharp increases to be absorbed. Power continues to be an issue for us at Olympia where it is sky high. This year we got a reduction, and it worked better for our traders but the power all round at events and outside of the events has been brutal and I don’t think anyone needs a reminder of that.

Cost of Living Crisis has obviously impacted all round. Of course it hits attendances and spend. How can anyone be blamed for not attending a vegan event even when they want to, even when they want to support our traders, when faced with such unjust and unnecessary financial challenges. I so hope that a year from now we have a new government and 2 years down the line beginning to see an end to the nightmare of the last few years for so many people.

Train Strikes. In absolute 100% solidarity with the trains and the working people in their pursuit of a fair deal and disgusted at the number of decent working people forced to strike because of the corrupt, selfish, uncaring, incompetent, embarrassing and weak Government we have to endure these days. But that aside, train strikes have hit our attendance on 2 out of 4 occasions and several regional vegan events likewise. Once the train people are given a fair wage and the dispute settled, that issue will be sorted.

Rise in associated costs for traders – wages, travel, accommodation, health and safety, eating whilst working – it has all escalated and made the costs prohibitive for some traders regardless of pitch fee. A lot of smaller traders and charities have fed back to us on this issue. We are looking at some one day events in 2024 to try and address some of those issues. Stall prices were reduced by 20% average from 2022 and cheaper options introduced to try and ensure traders are not excluded by price.

Teams Dismantled – many of our previous bigger brands used to employ teams to work the events – and these were of course largely dismantled during the covid period. Very few seem to have come back as brands have explored other marketing avenues, especially for consumer shows. We used to benefit from the team aspect as they were always looking for shows every weekend – now, that’s not the case. The big brands (and often their free samples and tasters) were always a big attraction and their ongoing absence a further reason for drop in attendance. There’s also been fewer product launches and new products appearing – again a big attraction in previous years where shows like ours were often the first place people would see new vegan products. That should change as the economy strengthens again.

Shift To Mainstream – something we have all been working towards collectively for decades and in January 2018 Wicked Kitchen was launched in Tesco’s – within 6 months every major supermarket and hundreds of high street outlets were stocking plant based options. Although that is thrilling and a huge achievement and success on multiple levels, even so it has hit our independent traders very hard and forced a big number to cease trading. That is heartbreaking and for me, really so sad to watch time and again and again and again good people go out after years of working with them. Brutal, and responsible for a sizeable drop in both traders and attendance at our shows.

Apathy in The Vegan Community at Large – this is an ongoing issues with all social justice movements and no easy way to remedy except to keep going and keep creating dynamic and engaging events and content that stimulate and excite and motivate more people to get active and get busy and get involved and get out there doing more for animal liberation and a shift to plant based food systems. It’s not surprising that so many of us feel so dispirited and uninterested so often after what we’ve all been through these last few years but that will change and already is and the vegan movement will have its days again and that’s already becoming apparent through our shows this last few months, with a really strong core emerging, as well as in multiple different other areas, often events driven. Deepest gratitude to those who have kept their input optimised through challenging times – invaluable.

So, all in all, its not an easy climate as they say and for Vegfest, resulting in a 70% drop in traders, a 70% drop in attendees, an 80% drop in sponsors and an 80% drop in our own workforce in under 4 years. As a result, I am the last remaining full-time employee for VegfestUK Ltd, down from 5 in 2019. My annual salary is £15k. I am very grateful to be in a position to get paid for what I love doing, and grateful for those individuals that have supported our firm so thoroughly this last 2 years. And I love my job 120% regardless of the ups and downs.

Many have said to me – why don’t I give up? Surely this isn’t sustainable. And it would be dishonest not to admit I have had to face this full on for a few years now and it has been taxing, or course it has. And without some rock solid support – impossible.

But for me to give up would be at a minimum a dereliction of duty. I would be failing my grandkids, failing the animals and failing in my moral duty to do my utmost to help those that need it most wherever I can, and it’s not in my nature to hand in the towel. It’s the opposite – there are new opportunities emerging all the time, & I am relishing the challenge of rebuilding & finding solutions and working with a growing collective of likeminded souls who are dedicated to the cause. And besides we have achieved a lot of success this year despite the tough times and am in no hurry to stop on those levels. And I truly love our vegan collective and returning community vibe and family vibe and so value what we have that I can live with what we’ve lost and take so much strength and purpose and support and encouragement from what’s already going on right in front of us all that there is absolutely zero desire to pack it all in and do something else. But yes, something has to change if we are to continue. And I have some exciting plans for 2024 in the pipeline to share shortly…

Part 2 will outline some of the positives, achievements and solutions for 2024.

Part 3 will examine our plans and intended changes to rectify some of the challenges we all face in 2024, published late November 23

Thankyou everyone who is currently doing their very best for the animals, for the people and for the planet – you’re our collective lifeline

xxx Tim Barford November 2023