Organic growth: inside the Allergy and Free From Show

The UK-based organiser of the Allergy and Free From (A&FF) Show, F2F Events, didn’t have to wait for exit surveys to know its latest edition was a hit; one look at visitors’ shopping bags said it all.

Olympia London was bustling when EW visited the three-day event and its co-located shows, Just V Show and Love Natural, Love Organic, in July.

The trio’s record attendance of 30,964 visitors was a four per cent increase on the previous year. A remarkable result given the 2014 edition also included a fourth event, which F2F Events sold last year.

Surprisingly, the company was warned against buying the allergy event in 2009.

“I can’t tell you how many people told me I was an idiot,” says Austen Hawkins, managing director of F2F Events. “Many people believed that only consumer shows that serve a consumer passion or special interest can be successful; we proved otherwise.”

Undeterred by warnings of an event on the slide, with a tiny exhibitor base, Hawkins’ team set about rebranding the former Allergy and Gluten Free Show.

Organisers say the wanted to create the ultimate shopping experience for the millions of UK residents who suffer from allergies and intolerances (Picture: Melanie Gardiner)
Organisers say the want to create the ultimate shopping experience for people who live with allergies and intolerances (Picture: Melanie Gardiner)

They developed a consumer show that combined shopping with a strong educational component, including demonstration kitchens, a speakers’ corner and lecture programme.

UK portfolio director Tom Treverton says the strategy was guided by audience intelligence.

“We renamed it The Allergy and Free From Show because people were after products free from all kinds of allergens and intolerance triggers,” Treverton says.

He adds the series’ concept has medical roots, with research showing millions of UK residents live with allergies, intolerances and other less-understood conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Market research (Photo: Melanie Gardiner)

In 2012, F2F launched The Just V Show, catering for vegetarian and vegan communities, and co-located new launch Love Natural, Love Organic   in 2014.

“We noticed that between 40 to 50 per cent of the (A&FF) audience were either vegetarian, vegan or interested in reducing their meat intake. At the time, there was no other indoor consumer show that was specifically for that community,” Treverton says of the Just V Show.

This ready-made audience helped F2F pitch to a new cohort of exhibitors.

“Our vegetarians, vegans and meat reducers were also interested in what the Allergy and Free From Show had to offer, so there were very happy bedfellows,” he adds.

Marketed as separate events, survey data reveals most visitors attend all three shows, but the A&FF Show attracts the highest pre-registration.
After the A&FF Show’s first London edition welcomed 8,126 visitors and 87 exhibitors in 2010, F2F launched a two-day Liverpool edition in 2012 (2014: 9,437 visitors).

In 2015, it followed up with an A&FF and Just V Show launch at Messe Berlin, which was named Best Consumer Show Launch at the recent AEO awards. A Glasgow edition, expected to attract about 8000 visitors, is set for March 2016.

“One of the reasons we went to Germany is because they’re five or six years behind the UK in terms of range of products,” says David McAllister, director at F2F Events. “In Germany, there is a desperate need for the consumer to have more access to choice.”

The company plans to keep expanding its portfolio.

“We know we can launch these shows almost anywhere around the globe, because the size of the visitor market is there,” Austen adds. “The challenge is that the market, in terms of national exhibitors, is big enough to allow us to run a show.”

Handle with care: organisers warn visitors to be vigilant
Handle with care: organisers warn visitors to be vigilant (Photo: Melanie Gardiner)

One constant is the risk of dealing with visitors who have a diverse range of life-threatening allergies, which could be triggered by products onsite.

The organiser developed a strict code of conduct for exhibitors, has specialist medical teams onsite, displays warning signage and helps exhibitors to partner with the venue’s on-site caterers to create a “Free From” café menu.

Meanwhile, visitors are encouraged to use the same diligence they would in any other public space.

“We’ve got better at it every single year and to date the record is very strong,” Treverton says. “The exhibitors are the rock stars and that’s what drives attendance.”

What the exhibitors say

For the past two years, Doves Farm has showcased its range of organic and gluten free flour at the Allergy and Free From Show.

The company, which has milled flour since the late 1970s, created a ‘free from’ bakery to highlight its cookie and flapjack ranges.

Doves Farm marketing manager Nadia Morse said the show was a great opportunity for staff to listen to the dietary challenges many people face.

“This has also had a profound impact on the experienced Doves Farm brand team,” Morse says. “Gathering this feedback is crucial for product development.”

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