We were delighted to host our 11th annual Food & Drink Conference in our Edinburgh office last week. With over 200 people expressing interest in attending, for the first time we had to operate a waiting list. This record level of interest in our conference shows the enthusiasm of the sector for getting together, networking, collaborating and hearing from our excellent speakers about their successes, challenges and views on the future.
In our first panel, Scotland Food & Drink Chief Executive Iain Baxter outlined the new sector strategy ("Sustaining Scotland. Supplying the World."), RSM's UK Economist, Tom Pugh, provided an overview of current and forecast economic conditions, and Carol Saunders, Head of Insights at Scotland Food & Drink's Knowledge Bank, spoke about consumer preferences and in particular the Scottish consumer's preference for Scottish and local produce – including that consumers' understanding of "local" has been narrowing in recent years. This session generated a great deal of interest and questions from the floor, indicating how its content was directly relevant to everyone in the room. The discussions continued into a convivial coffee break.
We were delighted to hear from Kristian Tapaninaho and Christie McCluskey, the Founder / Co-CEO and General Counsel (respectively) of Ooni Pizza Ovens, who told the story of Ooni's incredible success and how opportunity can arise from even the most adverse circumstances.
A panel of Alastair Dobson (MD, Taste of Arran), Jacine Rutasikwa (Co-Founder, Matugga Distillers) and Steve Mitchell (MD, The Buffalo Farm) then shared their own stories of identifying opportunities where others weren't looking, whether that be Taste of Arran bringing together multiple producers to create a collective route to market; Matugga combining the distilling heritage of Scotland, the rum traditions of Jamaica and the culture and produce of Uganda to create a unique rum; or the Buffalo Farm taking advantage of Scotland's abundant grass to produce mozzarella that can compete with the Italians.
A first-class lunch (a must for any food & drink conference!) offered more opportunities for networking, and it was great to see attendees from different parts of the sector sharing their stories, insights and ideas. No doubt some new and exciting propositions will emerge from those discussions in due course.
Ewan Reid, MD of Move Fresh, then offered a tremendous insight into the opportunities and challenges in using e-commerce to sell food and drink through direct to consumer channels – many notes were taken by those in attendance!
The conference was then closed by Martin Bell, Deputy Director for Trade at the Scotch Whisky Association, who provided an update on how Scotland's flagship food & drink product is performing internationally (much more strongly than in the UK market, it turns out). Martin identified where the most significant opportunities are for whisky exports, a path other food & drink producers will dream of following.
We are very grateful to all our speakers for their contributions, and for giving us their valuable time.
For me, the key takeaway from our conference is the dynamism and innovation of Scotland's food & drink sector, and its ability to take advantage of opportunities even in challenging times. These are traits that will stand the sector in good stead, and we are already looking forward to sharing more success stories at next year's conference.