The event industry’s award-winning show smashed all expectation. Here’s how

Venues Events Live Chocolate

Industry figures can often be heard calling for the event sector to work more closely and to develop a universal vision in the face of an uncertain future. At SquareMeal Venues + Events 2017, there was plenty of evidence that these calls are being heeded. That, certainly, was the view of many of the 7,000 visitors and 263 exhibitors attending the event at Old Billingsgate in September.

Hands-on workshops, drinks masterclasses and a varied programme of seminars kept visitors abreast of the latest trends and developments – and kept them entertained, too. Some 200 event organisers judged entries from a mix of venues and caterers competing for the coveted SquareMeal Canapé Cup. The competition, sponsored by furniture supplier Yahire, excelled in reaching higher standards than ever. 

The show saw the major players in the events industry out in force and focusing on an exciting year ahead after a challenging 2016/17 that brought us Brexit.

Market Leaders

As in previous years, the event was a useful barometer of trends. The show revealed a renewed focus on corporate responsibility and a genuine feeling that a more sharing event industry could help all parts of the sector to thrive. This was an idea repeatedly explored by the roster of A-list speakers and industry leaders who spoke during the thought-provoking two-day programme of SquareMeal Sessions.

London Venues and events show

Everybody’s favourite French chef, Raymond Blanc OBE, was a particular draw. His forthright views made for a stimulating live session with SquareMeal Venues + Events editor Damien Gabet.

‘The landscape in corporate dining is very different from how it was 15 years ago,’ said Blanc. ‘It used to be about companies showing off how good they were on the surface – without thinking what was going on behind the scenes. Now, it’s more about the substance: what goes into the food you serve, where is it from, is it sustainable? The sharing concept goes as far as the style of dish. Now, sharing plates provide a solution for bonding at a big event.’ 

The issue of sustainability could be seen at play in Easy Gourmet’s winning entry for this year’s Canapé Cup. The company presented what looked like a mini outdoor festival, christened Wildwood, using produce sourced from the Home Counties to reduce food miles, as well as recyclable packaging and accessories.

‘The theme is responsibility,’ client services director Shaun Waters told us. ‘Our new plan is to cater with our Perspex “moji” boxes, which are easier to pack and can be sent back to us for recycling. We have also been to Asia to research a new plastic that can degrade over three years.’ 

London Venues and events live

At the show, Raymond Blanc awarded Eden Caterers a three-star Food Made Good rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association. ‘Our big push is to rid ourselves of plastics as much as possible,’ said Eden MD Hugh Walker. 

South Bank venue 15Hatfields announced an eco-initiative at the show, giving out 500 reusable water bottles in support of the One Less Bottle campaign. Its mission is to encourage London venues to stop using single-use plastic bottles completely.

Sharing was definitely on the minds of street-food specialists Kerb, who served up close to 2,400 complimentary dishes, while Zebrano Bars and Inception Group dispensed enough free cocktails to fortify a Roman legion. 

The stats behind the show

+ 3,126 canapés tasted during the Canapé Cup
+ 5,012 free breakfasts and lunches served at the Complimentary Café
+ 8,021 Curzon Cinemas-sponsored bottles of water drunk
+ 2,398 Kerb street-food portions served

Location, Location, Sensation

Exhibitors warmed to the show’s friendly, one-to-one atmosphere, and many reported quality leads. This was attributed, in part, to the fact that the show was located in the heart of their target market, the City.

‘We came for profile-building, but actually made bookings on the day. The show is at the heart of the business district, so it’s easier to meet the customers you want to talk to. It’s also intimate enough to make it feel like an exclusive interaction for those “in-the-know”,’ said Sarah Fenton, regional sales executive at

Exclusive Hotels & Venues. ‘People can take time out of office hours to come and visit and, with the venue opposite a City landmark such as The Shard, you feel you’re part of the community you want to target.’ 

Venues and events live old billingsgate

That the event represents a real opportunity to take firm bookings was a sentiment echoed by Silverstone Circuits. ‘Our first day was more busy, which I think reflects the fact the show is located in the heart of the City and is therefore a “must-attend” fixture on a company’s business calendar,’ said Oliver Wiltshire, Silverstone corporate sales manager. ‘This is also demonstrated by the fact that we have had direct conversations with our end users, not just agents, which is critical as it has created vital leads.’ 

New Recruits

First-time visitors and exhibitors agreed that the show exceeded expectations. One venue tipped as a hot newcomer for 2018 is The Postal Museum. ‘We have had a huge flurry of interest. Being a new venue certainly helps create interest,’ said Claire Bastin, marketing and event sales manager. ‘The real test will be next year when we’re no longer a novelty – no venue can be complacent.’

Flowers Old Billingsgate

This is my first time here. I always thought it couldn’t show me anything I didn’t know already – I couldn’t have been more wrong

And first-time visitors also reported that they were impressed by the diversity of suppliers, ideas and seminars on offer. ‘This is my first time here. I always thought it couldn’t show me something I didn’t know already – I couldn’t have been more wrong,’ said Rima Warrell, events manager at office fit-out specialist Overbury. ‘I look after clients who demand something very different,’ Warrell added. ‘The show didn’t fail to provide inspiration – from big-name seminar speakers who offered original comment to spontaneous finds, such as magician acts. It was informative and entertaining. It’s the kind of event everyone in the industry strives for.’ 

Healthy Returns

Exhibitors reported that the high number of quality visitors helped them to consolidate brand recognition. One ever-popular exhibitor is Warner Bros Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, which invites visitors to get snapped on the stand with the stars of the film series, while also creating new business for the venue.

‘We’ve been coming every year since we launched, and the conversion rates here have been on a constant growth curve ever since. Year-on-year, we are seeing a constant improvement of our activity here,’ said event coordinator Kim Dean.

Old Billingsgate street food

Hotels were also able to carve out new niches. Trisha Simpson, business development manager of Bowood Hotel in Wiltshire, says, ‘We’re a small hotel outside London, but we’ve had great leads for people wanting golf events – we thought new legislation had killed that market completely. By meeting potential customers at the event, we have been able to tailor packages accordingly.’ 

Exhibitors reported that the high number of quality visitors helped them to consolidate brand recognition

One of last year’s most talked-about exhibitors, Aqua Shard, was also buoyant. ‘There is no other event that offers us such intimacy with our customer base, as you can easily see our venue from the event,’ said Dominie Bunten, event and sales manager at Aqua Restaurant Group. 

‘We are hoping to build on last year, where we made about £300,000 off the back of connections made.’ 

Food for thought

The brand behind the show’s Complimentary Café is Sands Catering, which used the event to announce a new company slogan, ‘Meet Together, Eat Together’. 
The proof of the pudding was, quite literally, in the eating, with Sands working tirelessly to serve attendees more than 5,000 free breakfasts and lunches over two days. 

Curzon Cinemas water

This show is the best by far and the only one I attend

What about that new slogan? ‘We aim to highlight the fact that eating in the workplace has become more than sharing a plate of sandwiches in a meeting,’ said business development and project manager Paul Weinreich. ‘It’s now a communal opportunity to share ideas and build strong social bonds. Customers are going out for a drink less frequently, and sharing food and drinks in the workplace more. The style of our menus is meant to work hand in hand with this ethos.’

‘Fresh food is what we are about,’ added Williams. ‘For example, we have our own bakery that we use to make fresh ingredients. Healthy and light food is what people want here. This show is the best by far and the only one I attend. The people who come here are the people who actually buy. ’Weinreich added: ‘Customers are far more interested in what is going into their food, and they are happy to pay a bit more for a great experience. Presentation-wise, customers are much more attracted to a natural, artisanal style of presentation rather than classic neatness and white china.’

Now find out who came out on top in this year’s Canapé Cup