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The Conversion Fund rides the wave of food and drink events

Growth at the moment is ‘phenomenal’, particularly in food and drink events.

Whisky
Whiskies of the World is now a major event

Food, wine, arts, or media events regulars would likely have run across The Conversion Fund, though they may not have realised.

One of the foremost events stagers for a range of leisure and creative industries, the profile is deliberately kept low says Allen Gibbons, chief executive and managing director.

“We don’t want to be the name upfront, it’s the event that we want recognised,” he told Proactive.

‘Phenomenal growth’

That is becoming harder as the size of the business increases, especially when Gibbons describes growth at the moment as ‘phenomenal’, particularly in food and drink events.

Conversion Fund is probably best known for the highly prestigious International Wines and Spirits Competition, which it has run since 1969.

IWSC Group used to be name of the whole business, but the growing breadth of the events in its stable meant that was becoming too restrictive says Gibbons, hence the change to The Conversion Fund.

Watch: The Conversion Fund: 'Exponential growth' in fun lifestyle events

Undoubtedly, timing and a little good fortune have played a part in its recent expansion.

Who could have guessed twenty-five years just how big the food business would become?

Gibbons credits Delia Smith as the start of this foodie trend, but the Fund had already been looking at the potential opportunity even back then.

One of its first diversifications was Whiskies of the World in San Francisco, which has now increased to five events annually.

Gibbons says it started to look at other markets following that success and food was an obvious next step.

Events it runs now include the Atlanta Food and Drink festival, a must-attend event for specialists in Southern US cuisine, he says.

Sugar Land, meanwhile, is one of the biggest food and wine events in Texas, while Heritage Fire celebrates barbecuing, with 50 chefs demonstrating the art of outdoor cooking.

The Fund is involved with around fifty major festivals a year, though if daily events such as teach-ins are included this number rises to about 250.

Gibbons says it doesn’t run many of the events itself, rather the model is to provide capital and support the event’s organiser or founder.

“We prefer to find a business an entrepreneur has started and who wants to get bigger and needs capital.”

The fund normally limits its stake to a maximum 70%, though in certain circumstances it will have full ownership.

Live events prove their worth

Gibbons says live events have proved to be exceptionally resilient to the ups and downs of the global economy.

Young people especially are flocking to music festivals such as Glastonbury.

Gibbons admits he would like to run an event as sizeable and popular as that iconic event.

“To have an event that sells out before you even know who is appearing is unheard of in our universe,” he says.

Music festivals, though, will not be a new area for The Conversion Fund – “Too capital intensive, too many large established players” - but it is branching out.

Events in newly established disruptive creative and media sectors are growing.

The fund is now also involved in two restaurants and is looking at both a hotel and an online platform for trading fine wines and spirits.

Art, too, is becoming a major focus for the group due to strong synergies with sponsors and attendees at its food and drink events.

Events generate income through sponsorship, entrance money and exhibitor fees.

A family-run, private business, The Conversion Fund does not have any outside investors and is coy about the financials.

A substantial operation

Given the number and size of the events it handles, however, it is fair to assume it now a substantial operation and, according to Gibbons, getting bigger.

Gin is the next big thing in wines and spirits he says, while the art operation is also starting to motor.

How big can the business become? Again, Glastonbury is the benchmark.

The Conversion Fund is not on the same scale yet in its areas, says Gibbons but who knows, he adds.

“We are undoubtedly riding a very interesting wave.” 

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