In three years the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine has grown to become the biggest gathering of food and drink writers in the world. The success of the event, which takes place in Cork, Ireland, has taken its organisers by huge surprise – particularly as it was born out of adversity.
Founded by Myrtle Allen as a restaurant and guesthouse in the 1960s, the business has been in the Allen family for more than 50 years. Although Ballymaloe is regarded as a Cork institution, by 2011 its customer base was aging and was desperately in need of reinvigoration.
Recalls Festival Manager Rebecca Cronin (pictured right): “One day, a few of Mrs Allen’s grandchildren and I were sat in a room together at the depths of the recession trying to brainstorm and come up with a plan of how we could re-energise Ballymaloe.
“The only repeat business for the hotel and restaurant at that time were all aged 65 plus and there was a notable drop off in younger families. Ballymaloe was competing against the larger hotels that could offer wonderful attractions such as a spa and indoor swimming pools so we knew we had to offer something different. We wanted to hold a big event that would put Ballymaloe back on the map for the younger generation.”
The team initially hit upon the idea of a wedding fair or wellbeing festival, but in the end decided it wasn’t the solution they were seeking. It wasn’t until a whole year later that the idea of the literary festival first arose.
Like many good ideas, it arose completely by accident. Rebecca explains: “I was in my office one day when a gent walked in the door. It was Geoffrey Dobbs, founder of the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka. He saw the Grain Store, which had been renovated as an events venue in 2009, and said ‘this would be an amazing venue for some literary talks’. I happened to overhear him and we all got talking about it. The next thing I knew I was having a cup of tea with the management team, discussing how we could go about hosting this event.”
The more they thought about it, the more obvious it seemed – the Allen family boasts three generations of cookery writers. It started with Myrtle Allen (now aged 91), who became cookery correspondent for the Irish Farmers Journal in 1962 and went on to become a celebrated Michelin Starred chef.
Some 30 years later, her daughter-in-law, Darina put pen to paper and has since produced 18 cookery books, as well as fronted her own cookery show for RTE. Following suit, Darina’s daughter-in-law, Rachel began writing cookbooks in 2002 and has published 11 to date. (Pictured below L-R is Darina, Myrtle and Rachel)
The latest cookery writer to emerge from Ballymaloe is the hotel’s former Head Chef Rory O’Connell, who co-founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School alongside his sister Darina and is Director of Litfest.
Rebecca says: “Not only did the literary festival make sense because of the family’s tradition of writing about food, we also had access to top international chefs and drinks experts because Darina had travelled around the world to a lot to different events meeting all of these inspirational people. It seemed like it could be the answer.”
Because The Ballymaloe Cookery School (pictured left) was already highly regarded on the culinary scene internationally, the festival benefitted from a ready-made reputation.
“We started contacting people from Darina’s ‘little black book’ and to our amazement 90% of them just said ‘yes’. The other 10% were already committed to something but said they’d love to come the following year,” says Rebecca. “Someone has been recorded on film as saying ‘no one ever says no to Darina’ and I think it was out of friendship more than anything that they agreed to support the inaugural event.
“To be honest, it did sound completely off the wall – a literary festival of food and wine. We were very nervous about it and wondered if it were completely mad, but the support was incredible and it really inspired us to continue.”
The event snowballed and came together in just six months, with Rebecca – then only used to organising small-scale community events – thrown in at the deep end as Festival Manager.
“I accidentally fell into it,” she reveals. “I was chatting with the initial board and I said to them, ‘this may be small but it needs someone to take overall responsibility and control,’ and they replied saying, ‘great, that’s you!’”
Although they didn’t know what kind of audience there would be for their inaugural event, the team’s main goal was to create a programme of top quality content. This goal was boosted further when Rory O’Connell (pictured right) also got on board and was heavily involved in creating the content for the programme, bouncing ideas and suggestions between the core team.
Says Rebecca, “We aimed to kick off with a blast and with the calibre of speakers we approached we knew it was going to be a seriously wonderful gathering of people.
“Whatever was going to happen from this weekend, we ourselves were going to be inspired and the small amount of people who were going to come would have a wonderful experience.”
However, running the festival was not without its risks – massive investment was required and, as an unknown quantity, gaining sponsorship would be challenging.
“It was a massive risk,” says Rebecca. “We didn’t realise the amount of money that needed to go into it in the first year.
“I think with pretty much any festival the budget is too big to be able to support itself, you need sponsors, or you’d have to charge tickets of €1,000 to cover your costs.”
Although Litfest didn’t secure a headline sponsor in its first year, it did gain a number of smaller supporters, including companies supported or born out of the Ballymaloe brand such as Ballymaloe Country Relish and Cully and Sully.
“These companies were supported by the mother brand when they started, so they supported the festival in its first year to give something back. Likewise other companies that would have been indirectly supported by Ballymaloe came on board.
“They had no idea how the festival was going to build but they supported us because of a respect for Ballymaloe and what Ballymaloe has done for them over the years.
“This was particularly the case with Kerrygold Butter, which became title sponsor in the second year. Darina has always been a vocal advocate for butter despite doctors and scientists saying it was bad for our health in the past, so it was a natural partnership.”
Once they had the sponsors on board, it was time to turn their attention to the festivalgoers and Rebecca says they put as much energy into that area as possible.
“I drafted emails to a whole load of databases; from culinary organisations, restaurants, shops and cafes throughout Ireland, to the Guild of Food Writers. I hit every kind of avenue I could to spread the word.
“We didn’t really exploit social media in our first year because we didn’t have the resources but we did get great PR. We employed a PR company and because it was an inaugural event the media picked up on it and wrote about it. We also asked all our speakers to put it on their websites and write about it if possible.”
It was a strategy that paid off, because the inaugural festival held in May 2013 attracted a whopping 6,000 attendees – more than double the 2,000-3,000 they’d expected.
“It was completely and utterly unexpected, but we were delighted and – most importantly – we were able to manage it. We’d estimated our numbers from working on our other events. We have a craft fair and that’s slowly over the years gained more and more footfall, but this just exploded from the off.”
Rebecca says organising the first festival was “a mammoth undertaking,” with all hands on deck.
“From the management team, though to Darina’s PA, all the kitchen staff, school teachers and the people that work in the gardens – everybody got behind it. It was a massive learning curve; from the simple things like figuring out car parking and logistics, to forming the framework of the programme, designing the branding and securing funding, there was definitely a lot happening in the fist year.
“Everyone was stretched to their limits and everyone put their hearts and souls into it. With such wonderful guests we were really under pressure – we knew we had to make it worth their while to come here from the other side of the world and take time out from their busy schedules.”
Organising the festival galvanised the team at Ballymaloe and subsequently earned the country house a brand new customer base of foodies, enthusiastic about its farm to fork philosophy.
“The speakers and general public adored it, we had hardly any negative feedback,” says Rebecca. “Everyone was blown away by the uniqueness of the festival, the structure and the calibre of the speakers. There was no VIP area and everyone was able to mingle which was part of the magic.
“For us, there were so many blips that we were hopping over – it was like an obstacle course on the weekend but no one seemed to notice, which was the great thing!”
She adds: “There were many ways we fine-tuned and tweaked the second festival and we believe it was a better, more smoothly run event, but we still learnt loads. Each year we learn ways to improve, which I think is really important.”
In year two the festival was a sell-out, attracting 8,000 attendees across the weekend. The organisers are now aiming to grow the event’s international profile, rather than its footfall.
“We don’t want to become an Electric Picnic scale event, we just want to make sure the message of the festival is going out further afield, across the globe. Slowly but surely we’re doing that.
“Last year we launched it in New York where we invited a whole host of American-based journalists that write for international publications. We ended up with a 7-page article in The Wall Street Journal on artisan food producers in Ireland.
“That’s our aim; to highlight Ireland as the next big food destination, to celebrate food and wine writing but also look at the issues surrounding food and wine production, food waste and the future of food. It’s an amalgamation of these things.”
Experiencing such growth and achieving its goals in such a short period of time, Litfest has undoubtedly been an incredible success, but what effect has it had on the business as a whole?
“It’s hard to quantify the financial impact it’s had but there has been a considerable reaction and knock on effect,” says Rebecca. “All the Ballymaloe businesses have seen the benefits of the international and national media around the festival and the continued conversation that happens on social media.
“It’s not only kept Ballymaloe in the public mindset, it’s also had direct customer improvements, with increased bookings of cookery courses and of the house.
“Anecdotally, I hear stories from customers, such as a woman who had been at Litfest two years ago who decided she wanted to take over the Big Shed for her wedding. Then there’s the cookery school students who often tell me that reading about the event brought them here. We’ve got students coming from all over the world now from countries like Japan, Denmark Korea, Australia, Vietnam and America.”
So what’s next for the Ballymaloe success story? According to Rebecca, plans are afoot, such as possibly expanding the programme to feature other food experts, not only those who are published writers.
“We’re on the cusp of deciding what’s going to happen in the future. It’s not quite batted out yet, but it’s striving forward, that’s for sure.
“We’re continually striving to improve and I think that’s another reason the festival keeps getting such great publicity and growing from strength to strength. We never rest on our laurels – we aim to take it to another level each year and will continue to do so.”