Though domestic and regional tensions continue to take their toll on the hospitality sector , attendance at the 20th annual HORECA festival this year indicates Lebanese food and beverage companies have remained relatively resilient amid the turmoil, and that the country remains an attractive market for international brands.
Nearly 400 global brands, including Lavazzo Espresso, Magnolia Bakery and Middle East Airlines are exhibiting at HORECA 2013, which launched Tuesday at BIEL. The number of exhibitors went up from 350 in 2012.
“We are a platform to promote the food and hospitality industry, so our motto is to send out positive vibes and not to talk about crisis,” Joumana Dammous-Salame, managing director of HORECA, told The Daily Star ahead of the event.
“HORECA is not directly affected [by the decline]. Since the launch of the event 20 years ago we have grown progressively from 50 exhibitors.”
Many of the foreign exhibitors at HORECA, which runs until Friday, appear to share the positive attitudes of the event organizers.
“We always believed in the Lebanese market,” said Mustafa Yilmaz, sales representative of the Turkish Poultry Promotion Group . “[The country’s economy] has [developed] a strategy to overcome crises so we never considered pulling out of the market.”
The value of Turkish imports to Lebanon has grown annually from $405,096 in 2007 to $840,304 in 2011, according to statistics from the Economy and Trade Ministry.
Tarek Naji, the general manager of Bey Trade Poland, which imports Polish products such as herbs into the Lebanese market, told The Daily Star that international brands continued to use Lebanon as a launching pad into neighboring Arab markets due to its free trade regulations.
The value of Polish imports to Lebanon rose from $25,176 in 2007 to $64,504 in 2011, according to the Economy and Trade Ministry .
“The companies we invest in make their first contact with Arab countries in Lebanon because of the easy market access,” Naji said. “[The fact that] Lebanese traders are widely connected all over the Middle East and North Africa contributes to further expansion in the region.”
One inadvertent beneficiary of the Syrian crisis has been Lebanon’s agro-food industry , especially the related packaging industry, according to industrial consultant Talal Hijazi. Packaging material production has increased 10-13 percent since the Syrian crisis started two years ago, he said, due largely to Syrian refugees’ needs for everyday commodities.
“Some humanitarian organizations buy products like rice or sugar from local providers to distribute them to refugees,” Hijazi explained. “Other international supporters import raw products to be packed in Lebanon, which helps the business as well.”
Hijazi cautioned against attributing this short-term spike in demand to sustainable economic growth. “When the crisis is over, this part of the market will be gone,” he said.
Meanwhile, local demand for nonessential commodities has been less stable. According to Cor Honkoop, the managing director for Lebanon of Heineken, which also owns the local beer label Almaza, political trends have significantly influenced national demand for beer.
“Beer consumption  follows economic growth,” he said. “From 2007 until 2010 we grew constantly. In 2011 we already saw a decline of about 7-10 percent and in 2012 another 5 percent.”
He attributes this decline to tensions, rather than increased competition from local beer brands. “We see competition as a good thing,” he said. “Until the market is growing again, we will focus on increasing our market share with better sales activities and the launch of new products.”