There are two things that always provide an instant reminder of just how enormous the HOST foodservice equipment show in Milan has become.
The first is when you make it inside the grounds of the sprawling Fiera Milano exhibition complex, grab hold of a show map and start totting up just how many halls are filled with exhibitors – 14 this year, apparently, (and, no, I didn’t have time to get round them all in the three days I was there!).
The second reminder usually arrives mid-afternoon on day two, which is roughly the time you start noticing that every conversation begins with an exchange about aching feet or how many steps people’s smart watches have clocked up.
Spare a thought for any HOST novices that made the mistake of wearing new shoes. There are plenty of pharmacies dotted around the exhibition site – I presume they all make a tidy profit selling plasters.
The sheer size and international scale of the exhibition has undeniably become its greatest asset. This is the place where the global catering equipment fraternity comes to do business – at least that’s the perception from within the industry and one that the show’s organisers are doing a remarkable job of fuelling.
More than 2,000 individual exhibitors were in attendance this year, with representatives descending on Milan from no fewer than 50 countries. 100 journalists flew in from all around the globe, comfortably ensuring the HOST brand has been spread far and wide over the last seven days, from Australia to South America.
The British contingent in Milan was stronger than it has ever been, too. I can barely recall making it down the full length of an aisle, or through the central concourse – with its trademark turquoise carpet – without bumping into a familiar industry face.
Big kitchen decision-makers from the likes of Mitchells & Butlers, Whitbread, Greene King and Fuller’s – as well plenty of smaller chains – were out in force during the five-day affair, while I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the distributors I bumped into must collectively be responsible for at least 50% of the equipment that gets installed in the UK every year.
Brands such as Precision Refrigeration were among those that bought out key dealers, using a couple of nights in Milan as the ideal opportunity to cement relationships, reward success and provide an insight to future plans. A hefty throng of the world’s top consultants were roaming the halls as guests of Ali Group, the Italian catering equipment conglomerate for which HOST is its ‘home’ show. With the vast majority of its 70-plus brands having their own booths, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company is single-handedly responsible for keeping Milan’s exhibition stand-building community in business.
Guests at its now traditional Ali Group party on the Saturday evening were treated to a ‘taste of Italy’, with a screened-off area of the exhibition’s Service Centre bedecked with lampposts, bicycles, stalls and scenic backdrops reminiscent of a classic Italian street – the ideal setting for Ali employees and customers to kick back with several cold ones after a day pressing the flesh.
One absentee was the main man himself, Ali Group’s founder Luciano Berti. His son, and current CEO, Filippo Berti, revealed that this was the first edition of HOST that his father had not been able to attend since it started in 1966 – incidentally three years after he founded a business that is today a multi-billion pound empire.
Addressing those in attendance, Mr Berti revealed that the last 12 months have again seen the company achieve record-breaking revenues.
Anybody who has served in this industry for a meaningful period of time will justifiably feel they could name most foodservice equipment brands plying their trade in the business, but I guarantee a trip to HOST will put that to the test.
I encountered a number of brands for the first time that were clearly significant in terms of product range and size – and several well-travelled executives I spoke to said exactly the same thing.
Gauging a company’s size and standing in the market always used to be a pretty straightforward process at exhibitions: the bigger and more elaborate the stand, the larger the company. HOST still very much has that kind of feel to it.
We might be living in uncertain economic times, but that didn’t stop the market’s big boys from transforming their stands into replica restaurants or rigging up giant LED screens that wouldn’t look out of place at a Premier League football ground.
I last visited HOST in 2013 and it was clear from walking around this year that its reputation has grown in the two editions since. The number of British exhibitors has increased too – some were there for the first time, others have participated before; all regarded it as a platform to further their export ambitions – and from what I could tell they weren’t left disappointed.
If you’re looking for one of the main reasons why HOST has been able to corner the market and carve out a niche as a truly international show, cost most definitely comes into the equation. This was certainly a recurring topic among exhibitors I approached.
One supplier told me the amount it had spent on its stand and getting flights and hotels for staff was exactly half of what it cost it to take part at the Restaurant Show at Olympia last month. And this, whether by design or good fortune, is why the organisers of HOST have manoeuvred themselves into such a favourable position: the bigger the show becomes, the more competitive they can be on rates and the greater the number of companies they attract. It’s the perfect cycle.
All things considered, I think that making comparisons between international shows and domestic shows is dangerous. I remain an avid believer that focused, well-constructed UK trade shows are absolutely vital for the industry here – especially for manufacturers that don’t have such a big export focus – and it requires the support of all parties – suppliers and operators – to make it work.
So what was new this year? That depends on where you start, but clearly many of the European brands used it as an event to showcase the latest versions of products that, in most cases, will arrive in the UK market during the early or middle part of 2020.
Speed, consistency, quality and automation are all themes that have been prevalent in the industry for some time – but with the growth of the food-to-go sector, in particular, they visibly took on extra prominence at HOST.
Connectivity was another major theme. This is a topic that is now spreading to all categories of the market because operators are finally beginning to comprehend how it can transform the efficiency of their business. I was given numerous demonstrations of connected equipment and it is impossible to deny just how powerful it could be for operators that truly get it and are committed to fully embracing it.
The likes of Middleby, Mareno, Winterhalter, Krupps and numerous others all had plenty to shout about on this front – and consistencies in their narrative demonstrate that this trend will only explode.
I was also impressed by what I saw on the Unox stand – another brand that has made significant progress in terms of connectivity and data utilisation. When I first began covering the industry, there were some who would have – rightly or wrongly – pigeonholed Unox into the category of ‘another Rational alternative’, such was the proliferation of combi oven brands all bidding to take a bite out of its gigantic market share at the time.
But when you look at Unox now, you see a company that is consistently coming out with innovative products aimed at addressing genuine market needs. Take a bit of time to check out its Evereo system, for example, and you’ll see what I mean.
Innovation does not happen by accident. Unox has invested heavily in product development over the last five years and I am told its R&D team is the best part of 40-strong. It’s safe to say that its brightest minds are already working on products that we won’t see until the next edition of HOST in 2021.
For me, HOST also reiterated just how far the industry has come – and indeed where it is going – in terms of design. Sure, traditional stainless steel was in abundance, but it was also common to see equipment finished in every colour of the rainbow. Orange cooking suites, blue pizza ovens, red ice cream machines, ‘wood-effect’ fridges – even meat slicers that look liked they’d just emerged after nine hours in a tattoo parlour.
If you needed any proof of the fusion taking between front and back-of-house areas, this edition of HOST was it.
All in all, I am sure anybody coming away from HOST will have returned with a real sense of the direction in which the industry is moving and the desire among manufacturers to continue pushing the boundaries – however incrementally – of what commercial kitchen equipment can do.
Now, where’s that box of plasters…