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Meet the buyers events

The project: The Eat Somerset project ran from June 2006 to March 2009. Coordinated by Sustain, the project was funded in its first phase (to June 2008) by a charitable grant from the Esmιe Fairbairn Foundation, with additional support from Friends of the Earth. The aim of the first phase was to develop trading links and new markets for local food producers, supporting 15 supplier businesses, and increasing the range of local produce available in six shops. The first phase of the project also involved Somerset Food Links, a not-for-profit organisation working to promote greater use of sustainable food. This series of Case Studies provides information on how the project developed, successes achieved and challenges faced in the first phase of the project.

Background

Over the course of working with local food producers it became clear that many of them needed some support in making new contacts with local buyers from a range of sectors including retail, wholesale, catering and public sector catering. This is partly because, as busy producers, they do not have the time to market themselves and meet with lots of individual buyers. Some of them also told us that the lacked the skills or confidence to do so.

In order to address this, the project decided to hold a first Meet the Buyers event in July 2007, followed by another in April 2008. These are a way of introducing producers directly to buyers. Producers have stalls displaying their produce and buyers are invited to come and look around and talk to the producers directly.

Meet the Buyers – Green Park Station, Bath July 2007

A total of 23 producers attended the event. Four others had confirmed but could not make it at the last minute. Around 19 buyers attended in total. The event was held in the open but under cover in the afternoon. This made is accessible to the public who were walking through the area. This was not entirely desirable as it took away the focus of the actual event and in future it was agreed to hold such events in more private areas. However, the event was successful and fifteen producers have reported that they had made new trading links as a result of attending. However, it is not known whether these links have come to fruition and resulted in regular orders. 

Left: Cotleigh Brewery - Right: Nutcombe Chocolates
Left: Cotleigh Brewery - Right: Nutcombe Chocolates

 

Meet the Buyers – BAWA Club, Bristol April 2008

To aim to get a greater range of buyers to the event, the project officer enlisted the support of the four local councils in the area (Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset). Each of these took on responsibility for mailing information to food premises within their area. This event was attended by 24 producers and over 50 buyers came to see the local produce available ranging from wines, beers and fish, to flour, ice-cream, yogurt, jams, cheeses, eggs, bread and apple juice. Four producers had to pull out at the last minute because of work demands, and 10 buyers who had registered did not turn up on the day.

However, the day was successful. Some orders were placed immediately on the day. It is known that 16 orders have since been placed and 27 new trading links are being pursued as a direct result of holding this event.

Our thanks for the additional support we received to run this event go to Bristol City Council and South West Food & Drink. In addition, Environmental Health Officers from South Gloucestershire Council attended to offer advice. Feedback forms showed that this was welcomed by participants, both producers and buyers. It provided a more joined-up approach to the event in terms of working with other partners.

Left: Hobbs House Bakery - Right: Bath Soft Cheese
Left: Hobbs House Bakery - Right: Bath Soft Cheese

 

What did we provide?

At both events we provided a list of producers for the buyers. At the April event we tried to improve on what we had done before by:

  • Emailing all producers beforehand with details of the day and a list of the types of questions they were likely to be asked by buyers. Although some would have had experience of this, we knew that not all had, and we felt it important that all come as prepared as possible to the event;
  • Produced a list of all producers with full contact details, and a space to take notes, to be given to buyers on the day;
  • Produced a list of all buyers' contact details for producers plus space for them to write notes about their discussions;
  • Let the venue know the layout of the room;
  • Asked producers to arrive in time to be set up before the event opening time (in all but one cases this happened).

What did we do on the day?

Preparation prior to the event is detailed above. One the day we:

  • Arrived early and made sure the room was laid out as necessary;
  • Ensured there were enough people to help out (three staff, and additional help from other organisations such as South West Food & Drink, and South Gloucestershire Council);
  • Took along all equipment that might be needed – extension leads for producers who needed access to electricity, signage, etc.;
  • Labelled tables for producers and took a nominal £15 payment for space, which contributed to some of the costs of the events;
  • Had a person to greet producers and buyers, where they signed in and were given name labels and a pack of information;
  • Took round drinks to producers who weren't able to leave stalls to get one;
  • Generally made sure everything ran smoothly;
  • Tidied up at the end.

What we have learned

  • Inevitably producers and buyers drop out at short notice so be prepared for this. If organising a similar event be prepared to adapt the room plan at short notice, but more importantly have enough producers registered in the first place to make sure that if some drop out it will not be a problem. For instance, if there are 30 producers expected and only 25 turn up there will still be enough of interest for buyers. If only 20 producers had registered and five of these dropped out buyers might be disappointed with the small number of producers and it may become more difficult to attract them to future events;
  • Providing good supporting information prior to the event and on the day is essential, as listed above;
  • It is very important to ensure that publicity is relevant and sent to the appropriate places. There is no point issuing a general press release to local newspapers for this type of event. Invites need to be direct to potential buyers, and use existing networks such as tourism (who email out to hotels, B&Bs, etc). Be broad in any mailing to potential buyers – do not just focus on places who 'might be interested' - a general mailing brought out some surprising interest from unexpected places;
  • It can be hard work getting producers to make a reliable commitment to an event, even when they are very interested. For the April event, invites were sent out in January. Three weeks prior to the event we only had 7 signed up. After a lot of phoning and emailing we managed to get the additional bookings to make it worthwhile running the event. The emphasis is on hard work by support staff.
  • Making a small charge to producers, in this case £15 for a table, was seen as good value from the producers (who often have to pay hundreds of pounds to attend trade shows), and this also helped to cover costs of putting on the event (room hire, refreshments etc.). Further, it helped ensure that producers had made a genuine commitment to coming.
  • Geographical boundaries are artificial – we did not stick to just Somerset. The event included producers from Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Bath & North East Somerset and North Somerset as well as a little further afield from Wiltshire and Devon. The title of the project, 'Eat Somerset' provides an artificial boundary that is not necessary. When trying to develop the markets in Bristol and Bath all the neighbouring counties / areas need to be included.
  • It was hard work, but really good fun! The 'buzz', particularly at the April event, was energising and helped the event go with well.

Evaluation

Both of these events went well, and feedback from producers who attended the events showed that 56% of them need support from Eat Somerset for organising events such as Meet the Buyers. In addition, 39% need help with marketing. Of the April event:

  • 94% of producers thought the event to be either excellent (44%) or good (50%);
  • 92% of buyers thought the event to be either excellent (48%) or good (45%);
  • 84% of producers thought the range of produce to be either excellent (17%) or good (67%);
  • 84% of buyers thought the range of produce to be either excellent (23%) or good (61%).

What would we do differently?

If running similar events there are a few things that we think could be improved upon, and these are some of the improvements we would make. We would:

  • Seek an even greater range of producers (the April event in particular lacked meat producers as the one booked pulled out at short notice);
  • Arrange a wider mailing of buyers – one of our partners was unable to mail out to potential clients in good time. This was a lost opportunity in the Bristol area. Only a limited number out of a potential 4,000 ended up being invited, and at short notice. This area has big buying power and an interest in local food so more focus should be given to encouraging buyers from the urban areas to attend events;
  • Plan more focused events – for example, ones specifically for:
    • producers interested in supplying public sector contracts and buyers from this sector invited only;
    • an appointment-based 'meet the buyers' for wholesalers for them to discuss individual requirements in a more formal way;
    • a general 'meet the buyers' for the retail and catering sectors.

By focussing on specific markets and working directly with producers wanting to supply those markets we might find even more benefit from this type of event.

 

IN CONCLUSION: Meet the Buyers events are a particularly valuable activity for both producers and buyers. Helping to organise this for producers takes the pressure off them and provides additional support and networking opportunities. Not only were there benefits in terms of meeting buyers, but other links were made between producers at the event. Producers don't often get the opportunity to talk to each other as many work in isolation, so this type of event lends itself to establishing productive working relationships.

 


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