Sunday 22 April 2018

Bread and butter income top priority for food festival chief

Avril Bannerton is constantly rejuvenating the €1m Taste of Dublin festival which showcases Irish produce and this year expects to attract 35,000 visitors, she tells John Mulligan

Avril Bannerton now owns the Irish franchise after teaming up with IMG
Avril Bannerton now owns the Irish franchise after teaming up with IMG

Avril Bannerton is anxious about doing interviews. For someone whose business demands exposure, it's an irony not lost on the Ballinasloe native. "I suppose I'm shy about interviews," she admits, after pulling herself away from paperwork with a colleague at the swanky Residence club on Dublin's St Stephen's Green, in what has the hallmarks of a final pre-exam cramming session.

"I'm very private really. I like to be private, even though I can live in the social world," adds the former hotelier and air hostess. "I'm a country girl at heart."

But the self-professed bashfulness is very much at odds with her day job, and Bannerton has little choice but to step into the spotlight. She runs the annual Taste of Dublin event, the Epicurean adventure park that takes over the capital's Iveagh Gardens for four days next week.

The €1.2m event showcases Irish food, the capital's restaurants and brings in well-known chefs from Ireland and abroad to keep visitors entertained. Drumming up publicity is not just part of the job for Bannerton, it's a key ingredient.

This year, she expects 35,000 people to attend, up from the 32,000 that munched and quaffed their way through Taste of Dublin in 2016.

And if ever there was a sign that the economy is on the upturn, 8,700 of this year's visitors will be there thanks to corporate hospitality. Leaving aside the 1,700 that are guests of Bank of Ireland, the remaining figure of 7,000 corporate guests is 32pc higher than in 2016.

"It's the bread and butter," she says. "What we really need to make this event work is the sponsor income and the corporate income. They're very solid income lines which really bed down the event."

Bannerton (52) says the corporate guests include small companies, Government bodies (she won't say which ones), as well as big business. Tesco is making an appearance as a sponsor this year for the first time, while DCC-owned Flogas is also a backer, as is Chill Insurance. Tattinger provides the bubbly and Electrolux is a global partner to the 'Taste Of' events, which are now operated all over the world by a unit of William Morris Endeavour-owned IMG. At the Dublin event alone, Electrolux is spending a six-figure sum, according to Bannerton.

"If we didn't have the corporate market, we'd probably have to spend more on our marketing programme to attract a higher number of walk-ups throughout the course of the event," she says. In fact, corporate tickets for the event sell so well that this year Taste of Dublin has doubled the size of its VIP tent. "We've had a huge take-up."

She adds that Bank of Ireland typically has private and business guests, as well as startup food companies on its invite list.

None of this comes cheap - for either sponsors or regular event-goers. Ticket prices have been a bone of contention of some regular event-goers, who then have to fork out inside for non-refundable Taste currency that they use to buy food and drink. It can all add up to a pricy afternoon's grazing (restaurants and stall holders attending get 60pc of revenue spent at their pop-ups, while Taste of Dublin takes 40pc). Bannerton points out that the average spend per head, including the ticket price, is €55.

But Bannerton, who has also brought shows such as 'Top Gear' Live to Dublin and has been involved in a number of other high-profile events, is unapologetic about pricing.

"At the end of the day, yes, some people will say it's an expensive event," she says, stressing the cost of setting up the festival. "Ticket prices do need to increase, but what we've done is actually keep tickets priced from €15 to make it affordable for people who might go to an off-peak session but still get the same value restaurants. People are getting a tasting dish for a maximum of €8."

She says that for what they pay, visitors also get entertainment, and can watch some of more than 170 free cookery demonstrations that take place over the four days.

"More than 75pc of our customers come back to us year after year, which is really strong," she says. "They see it evolving and the whole experiential and educational side of it has grown."

The restaurants that set up shop for the four days at Iveagh Gardens, meanwhile, get to showcase their menus, experiment with new dishes and gauge customer reaction. They also benefit throughout the year from their association with the festival, says Bannerton.

"It's not a money-making venture for them. They get to talk to their customers, get feedback and profile menus."

The Taste of Dublin event was the first ever held outside of London, where it was first conceived. The first event in Ireland was held at Dublin Castle back in 2006 before expanding attendance forced it to move to its current home. The London event takes place next week too, and there are now 'Taste Of' events held in cities all over the world, from Melbourne to Moscow, and Amsterdam to Auckland.

Bannerton, whose father owned a car dealership and was also a publican and restaurant owner, has advised other Taste Of events being held in other cities, but she insists that Taste of Dublin retains a special vibe not easily replicated at other venues.

She also has a keen interest in making it work.

Bannerton secured the franchise for Ireland from Brand Events in 2005, owning 50pc of the Irish arm and UK-based Brand Events owning the remainder. She sold her stake in the venture back to Brand Events in 2010 and the festival continued without her. In 2013, the 'Taste Of' business was sold to London-based sports and events management agency IMG. After a year, it came knocking on Bannerton's door asking her to run the Dublin event again on its behalf.

After a bit of prodding, she reveals that she actually now owns the franchise for Ireland again - and paid nothing for it. It's called having your cake and eating it.

"I was very lucky. IMG approached me and asked me to come back into the business because they felt that it needed a local driver," says Bannerton, admitting that IMG gave her back the franchise for Dublin gratis. "It's a good partnership. But you work hard at it all the time and can't get complacent. I'm always critical of everything we do and always trying to do it better."

Bannerton studied hotel management in Galway and worked with Trusthouse Forte in England as a trainee manager in the late eighties. She then worked with Marriott in London as a duty manager.

On a weekend trip back to Ireland, she took a career diversion.

"I was tired of working every Christmas and all the hours. I was in a hotel and Aer Lingus happened to be doing interviews." She then worked with the airline for three years on transatlantic and European routes, while studying for a human resources degree at the same time.

Work has brought its ups and downs. A couple of events along the way have gone a bit pear-shaped, while in 2015 Bannerton made a €120,000 settlement with the Revenue Commissioners related to undeclared income tax.

"It's been a challenging number of years, but it's been very rewarding. We've had more good events than bad events," says Bannerton. "It's down to experience. You need to know when to pull something, when to draw the line. Sometimes it can be very painful. I've had my ups and downs; it's the nature of the beast."

Meanwhile, with just days left before Taste of Dublin, Bannerton has plenty on her plate.

To the crowds at the event, the days are long gone where even spaghetti was a novelty on an Irish dinner table. Now it's blown seaweed with oysters, and whiskey and tea cocktails.

At a recent Ryanair press conference noting a plate of delicacies beside him, CEO Michael O'Leary quipped that it was "a long way from macaroons we were reared".

Indeed it is. And Taste of Dublin shows just how far the Irish culinary journey has come.

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