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Food Sports Gurus Gamble Big on Vegas


Exclusive interview with WFC
promoters Mike McCloud and Larry Oliphant

The first WFC (World Food Championships) was held this month in Las Vegas and hosted by Caesars Entertainment with Bally's as the staging location. The first of its kind, WFC was a four-day festival and cooking competition that featured culinary champions squaring off for food supremacy in seven food categories and for their share of a $300,000 total prize purse. The Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional was there covering all the events of this exciting championship and wanted to get behind the scenes with the people who made it happen. We were able to spend a little quality time with Mike McCloud, President and CEO of Trybe Targeting and Larry Oliphant, VP of Strategic Partnerships, the producers of WFC, for an inside Q&A.

Please tell us about your background in competitive food?

MM: For almost eight years now, our company has been involved in competitive food events as the official agency of record for the Kansas City BBQ Society and the International Chili Society. In addition to national mobile marketing tours, we develop and manage corporate marketing programs for food companies that can be integrated into over 700 food contests throughout the country, coast to coast. We also created and managed the Sam's Club National BBQ Tour, which has benefitted more than 1000 competitors with a $900,000 prize purse over the past two years.

Why choose Las Vegas for this first World Food Championships?

MM: Strategically, it made perfect sense. People from all over the world come to Las Vegas for fun, entertainment, great cuisine and competitive sports. So as we combined those elements into an annual celebration of the art and sport of food, we couldn't think of a better place to launch this ultimate food fight than right here in Las Vegas. Of course, it doesn't hurt that we love Las Vegas and I actually have a residence here.

What are some of the challenges in pulling this off?

LO: Establishing a blueprint for a first-time event. The model and template for the World Food Championships, which featured nearly 300 competitors and required about 500,000 square feet, simply didn't exist until we designed it and delivered it. So, we had to find a way to develop new processes, a common judging approach, a dynamic and fluid logistical support system and a run of show that accommodated seven divisions with three stages in two days of competition time. Then we had to move the entire show from Bally's over to Caesars Palace for the Final Table in just 10 hours of real time. It was quite a feat.

Especially here in Las Vegas?

MM: Health codes, locations and logistics. Navigating all of the requirements to run a safe, secure and sanitized competition throughout three busy casinos in the nerve center of the city, is simply mind boggling. Our home-based and local Las Vegas teams spent hundreds of man hours making sure that we followed all the rules for officials and delivered a world-class experience for competitors. And then somehow, we had to manage in and around other big productions going on at the same time, like the filming of Hangover 3 and the traffic jams it created. It was like trying to solve a Rubik's cube right in the middle of a chess match (yes, I realize that I just dated myself).

What do you see for the WFC future in Las Vegas?

LO: This may be hard for some people to believe, but we truly see the WFC becoming a major competition/expo for Las Vegas much like PBR and SEMA. Nothing has more potential or reach or significance in our lives than food. So even though we just started with seven divisions over three days, we fully expect that the WFC will become a 10-day, two-weekend event that brings culinary experts in as many as 20 divisions from around the world.

In your opinion, was year one a success?

MM: In many ways, yes. From media attention and operational performance to competitors and sponsor interest, it exceeded our expectations. Financially, it didn't produce a profit, but we didn't expect it would. We knew that producing a world-class event with this many tentacles would require a major investment. When asked why we did that, I simply explained that it's like buying a franchise; you have to invest to get ownership rights and then build out your business platform. Only in this case, we "created" a new franchise. So just like WSOP or UFC, we expect to make a multiple return on our initial investment in the coming years.

You made the competitions free to the public. Is that common? Will it stay that way?

MM: That's part of the reason we had to make a large investment in the first year. But it was important to us, and to Adam Richman, to pull back the curtains to food competitions and show consumers what this sport is all about. I'm not sure that we'll always leave it open to consumers who want to attend and see great food celebrities going head-to-head with average Joe chefs, but we will as long as we feasibly can. Future revenue from sponsorships and licensing rights will have a big impact on that decision.

You developed numerous local connections to Las Vegas culinary schools and charities. What motivated you to do that?

LO: Legacy. We see this event as our ultimate contribution to the sport of food competitions. Before the WFC, there simply wasn't a "super bowl" for food competitions. That's what we wanted to create, and we knew that it would only be possible if we supported and sought the assistance of many local culinary entities. Through one of our great partners and sponsors, Southern Wine & Spirits, we were introduced to Keep Memory Alive at the Lou Ruvo Center, the UNLV school of culinary and the College of Southern Nevada. We also reached out to Le Cordon Bleu through a casting call for trained chefs to earn their way into our competition as if they were performing on an American Food Idol stage. All of these local groups were extremely helpful to our mission of celebrating and cultivating culinary arts. And in the long term, we believe that our revenue streams will be extremely helpful to them.

Why Caesars Entertainment?

MM: We talked to numerous casino groups as we began planning this event, and the management at Caesars seemed to recognize the potential of this concept quicker than others. They also had great properties that provided direct access to Las Vegas Boulevard, which was important for our sponsors to get visibility and consumer traffic. So they quickly earned the inside track on negotiations and we developed a framework that will work for numerous years at one or more of their casinos as we expand the WFC in the coming years.

Do you envision the WFC becoming a city-wide event?

MM: We certainly do. Food and its many iconic categories is so vast that if we truly expand organically, it will require numerous properties and support from the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. If the cards are played right, Caesars will always have the ability to be the anchor property. But due to the space requirements of our competitions this first year, it was a challenge to fit all of our activities and events into their existing footprint.

Why did you choose to align the WFC with Adam Richman as your host?

MM: Adam is the perfect icon for comfort food. And most of the food competitions we represent and market, like chili or BBQ, are simply loved by people from every walk of life. We sometimes refer to our target demos as the white collar to blue collar to no collar. When we described that concept to Adam, he got it and loved it immediately. We were extremely pleased to see him embrace our vision and then start sharing it with many other culinary celebrities who wanted to be involved. To have nearly 15 notable chefs and culinary celebrities involved in our first year is simply amazing. Challenging from a logistical standpoint, but amazing from a strategic perspective.

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