The biennial food industry exhibition IFE starts in London this Sunday (13 March) with food manufacturers from the UK to the US and from China to Tunisia heading to the Excel centre to showcase their latest products. just-food caught up with event director Chris McCuin as he oversaw the last-minute touches to the show.

just-food: This is the first time you have taken charge of IFE. Has the show come together as you wished?

McCuin: The last show was hit by the recession and it was hit pretty hard and I was brought in to change it around. I know a lot of the international clients that work at IFE. They brought me to try and change a few things around. It’s gone very well actually. On Wednesday, we sold our last stand, so unless you go out the door and stand in the car park, I don’t think we’ve got any free space at all.

just-food: What kind of prices have exhibitors paid for their stands? Has that level improved since 2009?

McCuin: A lot of our clients are smaller, developing businesses so we tried to keep it very very similar to 2007 and 2009. We tried to help them out by not raising it too much. It’s very comparable to the rest of the market. England is an expensive place, we can’t get away from that. It’s a tough market on price, when you compare it to developing markets. That’s against us but the reality is people still want to be in developed markets. For a lot of these businesses, 80% of their profit coming from the UK and there are spending 5-10% of their marketing spend on it as they are so desperate to get into developed markets.

just-food: So does the cost of exhibiting here put off international exhibitors?

McCuin: It’s a difficult one. People want to be here. IFE is pretty much the only truly international food and drink show. People still want to bring their products in the UK. With international clients, a lot of them are backed up by government subsidies so when the global recession hit, subsidies were heavily cut. The average cost of recruiting an international exhibitor has risen immensely. Previously you would be able to meet with government bodies or associations to talk about subsidy levels of between 30% and 70% to include freight, hotel costs, stand bills. That has changed immensely. A lot of these international associations used to put 50% subsidies down. They are still doing it but, where they used to do it for 40 shows a year, now they are doing three across the entire world. That’s changed business models for international exhibitions hugely. Your average time spent on recruiting these international exhibitors is much higher. Previously if I flew over and saw a government association, that would have been four or five trips a year. Now, you are doing that, but you are seeing all the individual companies as well.

just-food: Has that changed the international profile of this year’s show? Are there fewer international exhibitors?

McCuin: Not at all. It’s always been about fifty-fifty between international and the UK. The average size of the individual exhibitor has gone down slightly but incredibly that is starting to change. For 2013, international pavilions are starting to call in and are talking about expanding space. The expectations that the market is growing and people are already asking for quite a bit more than they have already got.

just-food: How does IFE compare to other international food trade shows?

McCuin: The big ones are SIAL, Anuga, Gulfood – those three are the big boys. They are the must go-to for the big companies that are selling and exporting. I would never say to an exhibitor that exhibits at IFE ‘Don’t go to any of those because IFE is better than them.’ At the same time, I don’t think any of them would say ‘Don’t go IFE because it’s worse than us.’ We’re in the same market. It just depends on where your concentration lies and where you are actually trying to sell to. IFE is central to what all these guys do and it naturally goes back into their calendar for them, every odd year, to come back.

just-food: How important are trade shows in the modern business environment, particularly when companies are scrutinising their costs?

McCuin: I have a slightly biased stand point but, truly, if I didn’t work in exhibitions and I worked for one of the smaller companies exhibiting with us, I’d still think that, even in this day and age when people are cutting costs, that while technology has moved on, the way people do business hasn’t moved on. You are never going to beat shaking someone’s hand and having face-to-face contact. Trade shows are vital to what people do. You can do so much via technology but there’s nothing on face-to-face contact. That will never change.

just-food: What new features should we expect to see this year?

McCuin: One of the biggest things I am pushing this year is that I have created an England pavilion with the English Regional Alliance because, after Food From Britain disappeared, you have these accredited trade organisations that will help put English pavilions overseas but we’ve got no collective body now. I’m hoping that I’ll build this English pavilion and people will come along and will take the idea overseas. We’ve got some of the best products in the world and yet we see the Germans, the Austrians, the French, the Italians, the Turkish, the Cypriots, the Greeks, the Moroccans spending enormous money promoting their countries’ products and we don’t do that. The Food and Drink Federation put out that report saying that food was the number one manufacturing industry in the UK and yet we have not got a central body truly promoting it. We need to do this stuff.

just-food: What else should we look out for?

McCuin: There is a New Products Live – four days of seminars of new products being tasted, sampled and shown how to cook. IFE is a hugely international show so I set up this new section called Meet The World, which is where some of our biggest pavilions like Morocco, Japan and America take space on this theatre to show their national dress, music and food – and make it what food should be: an experience. Yes, it keeps us alive but if we can do it with a smile on our face and enjoy every second of it, why not?