Two friends, Ezekiel Adamu and Akin Esho, have pooled resources to transform the landscape of the $40 billion Nigerian drinks industry through a first-of-its-kind exhibition and summit called the International Drinks Festival. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

I can’t say if it is the rule. Everyone in the office smiles and acts friendly. This notion of acquaintanceship was deepened for the duration I spent waiting for the arrival of Akin Esho, chief operating officer of Balmoral group of companies. The lady at the front desk, Layo, who says she is a graduate of English and International Relations and I got into a heated discourse on Pidgin English. We were still at it when Esho arrives. That conversation ends as I stand up while he courteously holds the door for me to walk through. I make a mental note of it- politeness runs in this environment, not minding your designation.

My encounters with Esho are many. But it is the first time we are meeting face-to-face. We have previously exchanged emails and talk a lot on the phone mainly about his novel exhibition, the Wed Expo. Our meeting was facilitated by ‘Big Sam’ Olatunji, his publicist, at the time. “We meet finally”, I said. Neither of us believe our encounter would be under this circumstance. A few botched meetings in the past, probably made the possibility of running into each other remote.

Since we had already broached the subject matter, the interaction starts as soon as we sit. I know Balmoral. Everyone knows Balmoral for providing cosy event venues. What is yet to fit in is Esho’s connection. It still did not divulge much to understand that he uses Balmoral for his Wed Expo events. I do not want to make any assumption, after all I was sitting right across the table from him. It turns out that a lot of things have changed about Esho’s business. He has entered a business trinity comprising Ezekiel Adamu as Chief Executive Officer, Goke Obembe, Executive Director and himself as Chief Operating Officer. He also collapsed (or expanded it depending on the angle from which you are looking) his Wed Expo dream. He makes no fuss. “We are looking at the big picture. Wed Expo is now under Balmoral Exhibitions, which also handles other exhibitions. Our major concern is to create innovative platforms that are tailor-fit for specific sectors of the economy.”

He went on to explain the transformation of Balmoral. “Balmoral used to be known as just venues. Now we have Balmoral life which is the strategic thinking, marketing and ideas arm. We have Balmoral Exhibitions. We have Balmoral venues which is the old Balmoral. Now we are also adding Balmoral hospitality. We intend to create our own events and we will also partner with people to develop their ideas.”

For Adamu and Esho, working together at this level was a matter of time. In fact they have always had some kind of partnership; because Adamu never charged monies for allowing Esho use his venue for Wed Expo. Therefore, deciding to pool their businesses under one umbrella was not such a difficult decision for both men. They are united in their quest for greater glory. As more venues are opening across Lagos, it was time for Balmoral to look for another area of competitive edge; and Esho, on his part, desired something bigger than Wed Expo.

Esho talks excitedly about the conversion of Balmoral. “We are a 360 events solution company and the International Drinks Festival which is coming up at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos between December 1 and 3 is our flagship since Balmoral became a bigger company. We are going to have several other brands under the Balmoral group. What we pride ourselves on is creating platforms for industries. With the International Drinks Festival, we are creating platforms whereby we have the drinks summit, which is where the business of drinks is being discussed. We have the exhibition, where the real brands will be able to showcase and also meet consumers as well as the hotel owners, club owners and the general public, then we also have the beer village which is more like an entertainment hub, whereby you have food and soft drinks. On the last day, we have the concert.”
“Why did you choose a drinks festival from other options?”, I ask him.

“We had several ideas but we decided to go with this because we felt it was really untapped. This is the first event you are going to see a Diageo opposite a Remy Martins; a Nigerian Breweries beside Guinness, Coke beside Pepsi, It is good for the consumers. A lot of people drink wine in this country, they don’t even know what they are drinking. There are a lot of people who don’t have a choice of drink, they just take whatever they see. With proper education, which is why we have the Masterclasses, you will be able to understand; from tasting of wine to food pairing – don’t expect to have Amala with wine. The experts will teach what goes with Amala; and what goes with other things.

“And will participation cover all aspects of the drinks industry?”
“We are not just having an entertainment event. What happened in the past was just an entertainment event, everybody comes to drink and have fun. We have that as a small part of what we are doing. The beer part of it is the entertainment part. We still have the B2B part, where the general managers of hotels, the owners of clubs, top level management in drinks companies, government agencies like NAFDAC, Customs, SON are coming to and discuss how to take the drinks industry forward. Customs is going to be talking on importation, We have SON to talk on standards. NAFDAC will talk on how brands that want to come into Nigeria or even the small brands that want to register because you have a lot of people now making smoothies and different kinds of drinks. NAFDAC will be there to discuss how to get your NAFDAC certification and the right steps to take. All these agencies will exhibit their services.”

We were not expecting Adamu when he walked in and perched on the side of the table.Both of us look at him for a moment, but he waved us on. Apparently, he needs time to catch the trend of the conversation before venturing an opinion.

Among the things Esho hopes the International Drinks Festival will achieve for Nigeria is the collation of reliable and verifiable statistics. A lot of figures are being touted about Nigeria being one of the biggest consumers of beer and champagne. “Yes, Euro Monitor has contacted us on their desire to conduct a survey because this is the only time they can meet everybody they need to talk to in one place. We are also going to run our individual survey as people come in.”

Without any sort of statistics, but just by observing the trend of happenings around them, Esho and Adamu reached certain conclusions. They believe the drinks industry continue to thrive even while the country was in recession.
They are convinced that Nigerians celebrate a lot of things for which they buy loads of drinks. Euro Monitor published a couple of years ago that the Nigerian drinks industry was worth USD36 billion annually. Of course that figure would have since gone up. As an active operator in the wedding business, Esho can say confidently that individuals spend as much as N100 million on drinks alone at a wedding.

This revelation among other things influenced the decision to organise the international drinks festival. Adamu raises his hand. He is ready to contribute. He said, “People have money in this country, but they may not even know what industry to get into. An event like this helps them make up their mind. It will open opportunities. More companies and investment will go into the drinks industry.”

The festival is expected to be a huge market place where drinks will be sold at prices far less than the regular. And this is why the organisers choose December, when people tend to buy more drinks for the year end festivities. A major entertainment offering at the festival is the Flair Bartending Show, where the performers will display astonishing bottle juggling skills.

An appetising teaser of things to come at the main event was showcased last August. Having a mini-show four months ahead in itself was a never-before-seen novelty in Nigeria. It was all they needed to convince brands and other participants that the main event was going to be a different experience.

“We are expecting about 25000 people. We are using the whole of Federal Palace Hotel. The Balmoral Centre is just one pavilion. We are also having extra pavilion. The entertainment hub, that is, the beer village is outdoor. We have satellite parking, there is security guaranteed. Everything has been looked into to ensure that people have a seamless experience from when they come in, says Adamu”

I drew his attention to the huge variety of drinks being made supposedly from African herbs and how it is being consumed in large quantities. There is a school of thought that believes that these type of drinks have done more damage than good and may be responsible for the prevalence of liver problems in the country. How can the drinks festival remedy that situation? His answer is that government agencies can come in and standardise such drinks and make them safe for consumption.

“I hear that people can make wine from kolanut, cocoa and date. It is not only grapes that are good for wine. If you don’t have a platform like the International Drinks Festival then the foreign investors will not come in because it is difficult coming into Nigeria and having to go from one person to another. But by the time you cone to a platform like this, it gives you a credible insight. They can come into Nigeria to test the market. Instead of doing individual surveys they can come into one platform like this and see thousands of people.”

Beginning to sound a bit outlandish, Adamu says, “What we are doing has never happened in Nigeria before. Not at this scale because we are well travelled. We travelled specifically to see what drinks events are like in London, US and Germany to be able to come up with ours. And we are not going to do anything less. We have quite a number of exhibitors who are represented locally and they have their foreign counterparts coming to experience what we are doing. We even have some foreign companies that are interested in experiencing the market here that are also coming.”

With an estimated number of 250 adhoc staff to cover security, technical and other areas during the festival, Balmoral Exhibitions is creating jobs. But this is tip of the iceberg. The ultimate goal for Adamu, Esho and Obembe is to expand the drinks industry such that it can create hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs. And they believe Nigeria has the human, material and financial capital to make it happen.

A bottle of water is on the table since we started talking and Esho hardly touches it. So, I wonder aloud if he is a teetotaller.

“I consume alcohol in small quantities. I drink every other thing like soda and juice.”