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On With the Show:
Behind the Scenes of Coffee Fest with David Heilbrunn


There was no lack of a good cup of joe when Coffee Fest opened its doors for its 12th annual show this past October 24th-26th in Seattle. The trade only event that serves the specialty coffee, gourmet tea and related industries throughout America featured a multitude of activities- from the annual latte art competition which drew contenders from as far away as Japan and Taiwan, to educational workshops. Tea & Coffee Trade Journalís new associate editor, Jennifer Magid, sat down with show manager David Heilbrunn to talk about how Coffee Fest has grown, and where itís headed.

JM (Jennifer Magid from Tea & Coffee Trade Journal): What do you estimate was the attendance this year?

DH (David Heilbrunn): Five thousand, not counting exhibitors and their staff. This is the best-attended show in the business. That floor is busier than any other show has been for the last two, three years and hopefully busier than any show will be until we come back next year.

JM: So how many per day?

DH: Youíre talking probably 2,000 people on the floor a day.

JM: Why has Coffee Fest become so big this year?

DH: We understand who our attendee is, and weíre servicing our attendee. Weíre servicing the coffee shop owners, the restaurateurs, the gourmet food stores, anybody who has anything to do with coffee on a retail basis. Itís retail, retail, retail - thatís what itís all about. If you take a look and you add up Seattle, Vegas and Washington D.C. (the sites of the other Coffee Fest shows to be held this year), what weíre doing is probably successfully enticing 90% of the independent coffee shop owners in America to our shows ever year. The way weíre doing it is because we have educational programming thatís carefully selected to help assist them in their business, and thereís an entertainment aspect. If you saw the latte art competition, itís highly entertaining. 37 times out, youíre either going to figure it out or youíre not, and apparently we did.

JM: How did you go about getting the show to this point?

DH: Itís a combination of the education, the public relations campaign to get the word out, marketing and also entertainment, and the entertainment goes beyond just latte art; it goes to the party (held opening night at a nearby restaurant), the attendeeís exhibitors, and we have a great time with those.

JM: Tell me about how you first got involved in Coffee Fest?

DH: I was in sales all my life. I was with Radio Shack prior to coming in with Festivals Incorporated. Long story short, I was the number one store manager in the entire organization. I realize people buy emotionally, and then they back their purchase up with logic, and I said well if thatís how people buy and Iím going to make a career of sales, then I need to get involved in the fun business. I realized every business in America is a sales organization. So I sent out resumes and said I want to sell sponsorship. And then I saw a little tiny article about a basketball franchise. I worked there for about a year and commuted home on the weekends - sold every bit of sponsorship. Somehow I found out about Festivals, Incorporated, which produced at that time the Bite of Seattle and the Taste of Tacoma, and they were looking for a sponsorship guy. So I sent my resume and 13 years later, Iím still with them.

JM: Whatís the biggest challenge of the show, in general?

DH: Itís all details. Itís all planning, and itís a total commitment to service. And itís commitment to attendees -- itís really our goal to be the best value for your money - for an attendee, an exhibitor, or a sponsor. And we donít take anything away from the other shows. The toughest thing? Itís staying ahead of the times. Itís challenging to understand whatís happening in our economy, what we see, yet continue to defy the odds, and believe that we can do it. Until you open the doors you really donít know, but you have to have that confidence. But for us, the things that we do are working.

JM: Any surprises this year? Things you werenít expecting?

DH: I had a challenge with our fire marshall on opening day. I personally pulled 15 loads of cardboard from peopleís booths so we could get open by noon. I didnít have time on opening day to do that, but again the commitment to it - this guy was telling me, ĎIím not going to open your show.í This is our 37th and Iíve never experienced anything like that. That was the biggest surprise.

JM: Whatís been your favorite thing so far?

DH: My favorite thing has been just to walk through those aisles, and turn and wink at an exhibitor and then yell, excuse me, and have them look [and see] that I really canít go through the aisle. And thatís the only way to get past - itís honestly that crowded. The first thing I said - this is the best-attended show floor in the business right now. Thatís a true statement, and I think that has got to make my entire staff and me just ecstatic. Weíre beside ourselves. Itís good to succeed.

JM: Whatís the farthest distance anyone has come from to be here?

DH: In the latte art competition, Iíve got two from Japan, one from China. And thatís huge. To be doing our third latte art competition and have that kind of participation really says something about the importance of latte art. These people paid their own way here. If they win, they make a thousand bucks. That doesnít even pay for their trip! When we get done, weíll have probably about 40 different countries as attendees on our list.

JM: Whatís coming up for Coffee Fest? Any plans to go overseas?

DH: We get inquiries - I had a guy try to talk me into doing something in Mexico or partnering up with people in Mexico. Weíre considering a coffee cruise that would be open to the industry that would be nothing but coffee people. We would own the boat. So weíre dabbling with that. Weíre kind of thinking 2005 because of SCAA coming to Seattle (that year).

JM: Tell me about your partnership with the Great American Dessert Expo.

DH: There was a dessert expo in Vegas last year. Theyíre a company out of New York, and theyíd built one show out of nothing, like Coffee Fest, from its infancy. They recognized Coffee Fest; they sought us out, called us and floated out the idea of partnering up on a co-location. So, weíre going to be doing Las Vegas at the Sands June 12th-14th. Itíll be all under the same roof, and there will be one admission price. There will be separate entrances, but if youíre on a cross aisle, you can go from coffee to desert without really noticing the difference. We think that for our exhibitors itís a wonderful thing, because it brings the dessert expo attendee, which is a little different than ours. They specialize in restaurateurs and food and beverage experts, and professionals. Certainly most of my exhibitors would like to talk to these guys. The reaction so far has been incredible. Thereís interest by companies that havenít exhibited with us in the past but are intrigued by the crowd thatís going to come on top of the crowd we get. We think its going to be wonderful. We think thereís so much synergy.

JM: What are some of the perceptions about Coffee Fest?

DH: Itís amazing how many people think itís open to the public; the public absolutely cannot come to this. Originally it was open. We almost changed the name when we changed it from a public event. But, I felt at that time we already had too much equity, so we kept it.

JM: As soon as the show is over, do you already feel like your mind is planning whatís next?

DH: If we were doing just one show a year, weíd probably take a week or two and decompress, but the fact is weíve got Washington D.C. in March. And weíve got Vegas right behind it. Weíre always planning way ahead. The other challenge thatís inherent in our business is, thereís really no rest for advertising, you have to be ready a couple months ahead of time. Even though weíre just finishing Seattle, Iím rapidly approaching the time my advertising will switch from D.C. to Vegas. Because my D.C. ads are out now. Itís very challenging to stay on top of that alone. Thereís a lot to do then youíre involved with marketing a new theme every three months. We donít rest much.

JM: What advice do you have for future exhibitors who want to get involved in the show?

DH: The first thing you have to understand is what you are, who you are. And what your objectives are going to be at a show. And these days, most exhibitors, I think they want to hook up with wholesale accounts. They want people buying merchandise from them on a regular basis. They want to sell product. So if somebody exhibits at a trade show, they probably want to make sales. If they understand that they do want to exhibit at a trade show, and they understand who they are, the next question is who is their character? And then its searching out the show that has that customer.

JM: Anything else that you want to add?

DH: That our attendance continues to grow (exhibitors were up 17% from 2002) and itís good attendees, too. These are quality people. Evidently people are telling other people, and the experience theyíre having here and the value it is to them - thatís obvious. Thatís really what itís about. I realized a few years ago, and this is when Coffee Fest turned around, that it isnít about peopleís money, itís about their time.

The Winnerís Circle
The following won the Dillanos Free Pour Latte Art Competition:

  • 1st place: JC Morris, Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, B.C. $1,000
  • 2nd Place: Zack Laic, Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver B.C. $500
  • 3rd Place: Bronwen Serna, Hines Public Market, Seattle, WA $250

    The following won best products in show:

  • 1st place: San Francisco Chocolate, for ďCoffee Lovers Chocolate CollectionĒ
  • 2nd place: Timolino, for Timolino Countertop Carafe
  • 3rd place: Innovated Products, for Metal Coffee Bean Bin for the home

  • Tea & Coffee - January/February, 2004

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