Sara Atkins & Nikki Bilby-Ward: The Great Food & Drink Show

Sara Atkins & Nikki Bilby-Ward: The Great Food & Drink Show

All content by Joff Alexander-Frye

There is an old African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. I believe that to be true and many of the best things in life happen through partnership. PB & J sandwiches, G&T and Ben & Jerry’s, to name just a few.

So, when I recently met with Sara Atkins, of Appletree Exhibitions, and Nikki Bilby-Ward, of GFIVEDESIGN, I found the same to be true. They are a great team and a combination to be reckoned with. Both local to the Exeter area, they have formed a team of four (along with their husbands) to design, plan and deliver – a fresh and exciting celebration of the thriving food and drink scene in the South West. Held at the Westpoint Arena in September this year, the show will see the finest producers and artisans of the food and drink industries gather to proudly present their fare. And let me tell you, I’m going to be at the front of the queue!

The team at Grow were so excited, in fact, that we have decided to become the main media partner for the show. You may see a common theme emerging here……we go further together, in partnership.


Hi Sara and Nikki! It’s great to have you here at our offices and can’t want to hear a little more about your journey so far. To start off with, tell me a little more about your backgrounds and how you have come to work together?

NIKKI: Well, Sara and I have been friends for about 15 years and go back a long way.

SARA: Yes, the four of us worked together previously in a sales environment of a Travel and Holiday company. We eventually all went our separate ways and my husband Paul went to work for the previous owner of Appletree Exhibitions, a chap called John Cooksey. Then when John announced that he wanted to retire, he offered the business to Paul and it was an offer that we couldn’t really turn away. That was five years ago and we haven’t looked back since.

NIKKI: Then about three years ago we all got back in touch when Sara and Paul moved to Beaford. I was managing a Travel Agency in Exeter and my husband Frank had started GFIVEDESIGN and was offering website-builds, graphic design and marketing services to businesses. It got to mid-2016 and his company was getting so busy that I left the Travel Agency and joined GFIVE to help it continue to grow. The first project that GFIVE and Appletree Exhibitions properly collaborated on was a website build that we did for them in 2015.

So how did that all turn into this partnership for the Great Food & Drink Show?

SARA: There was a Food & Drink show several years back but it never got off the ground. Since then, Westpoint Arena have been in regular contact with us asking if we would consider staging a show of this kind. Eventually, we figured that their consistent desire to run a show like this was a good indicator for the broader desire in the market. So, we took the plunge, teamed up as a four and got planning!

NIKKI: I believe we made that decision over a glass or two of gin if I remember correctly?

SARA: Yes, most of our best decisions have been made over a gin or two!

NIKKI: We then went about purchasing every domain name we could think of to cover the name we had chosen and it all went from there.



Tell me about the dynamics within the team then? Do you each have separate roles?

NIKKI: Not really. We all have years of experience in sales, so we knew that would be a joint effort. Then, me and Frank have the marketing and digital creativity side of things covered and Sara and Paul have the events management and staging experience from their background at Appletree. It’s a real team effort and we all pitch in when needed. That’s one of the benefits of working with friends – you trust each other to get on with things without having to worry about how good a job they are going to do.

SARA: And that is how our brand was born. Teamwork and dedication.

And how do you find working with your husbands?

NIKKI: Frank and I have worked together for years, in a variety of environments. We’re used to it now! I think the key for us is sharing a common goal but making sure we each have different roles to play in achieving that goal.

SARA: It’s the same in marriage as it is in business I think. You are together on the same journey, but you are also your own people who need your own roles, interests and time. I think they are both important elements to retain in any relationship. Personally, I have found it an adjustment as I came from an office environment of about 50 people to just me and Paul. In terms of the daily feel and experience of work, that change of pace really took some getting used to.

NIKKI: Working from home has its pros and cons too. I’m so much more involved with my children’s day-to-day lives but it is harder to draw boundaries and get into ‘work-mode’. The risk-factor of this sort of venture has played its part as well. Going from comfortable jobs with safe salaries and job security to an existence where your children, your spouse and your bank manager are completely reliant on this risky adventure that you have set out on. It is scary at times.

SARA: We all spend time together regularly though and we’ve spoken at length about our decisions and our plans. We’ve all agreed that, despite the risk involved, there are no regrets. We are ‘all-in’ as a team and are committed to making this partnership work.

How exciting! Let’s focus for a minute on the show itself then. Tell me about the preparation for your first ever Great Food & Drink Show?

SARA: One of the things we’ve particularly enjoyed so far is the variety of individuals and businesses who are getting involved as exhibitors. Some of the main shows that Appletree Exhibitions do elsewhere are Caravan and Motorhome Shows where, for the most part, you are dealing with the same exhibitors year in, year out. To deal not only with a fresh group of people but such a wide variety to is a real pleasure. We’ve got more types of food and drink at the show than you can imagine!

NIKKI: We’ve been incredibly encouraged by the reception that the show has received too. Exhibitors have, not only been booking their stands but recommending us to people in their network. It’s been an incredibly positive few months and there is a real buzz around the show. It is going to be the ultimate experience for food and drink lovers!





SARA: We’re also excited to tell the stories of some of our exhibitors and partners. We were passionate about making the show accessible to small businesses as well as some of the larger businesses in the area and there are so many exciting and inspiring stories behind those businesses.

NIKKI: And, whether it is the team at Exeter Cookery School, Mad Cakes, Veg in a Box, The Room Works, Exeter Gin or you guys at Grow Exeter, the positivity and support that we’ve received has been incredible. To see ideas that started around a kitchen table start to ‘take flight’ and gather momentum is truly exciting.

And why food and drink? There are a variety of other industries that you could have chosen.

NIKKI: I suppose at a very basic level, everyone eats and drinks. Mass appeal is a great starting point for an idea. But more importantly, we are real foodies and it was an easy choice for us. The only reason I exercise is so that I can eat what I want! We wanted to highlight and give a platform to the finest food and drink that the South West has to offer.

SARA: Yes, there are an amazing wealth of producers in the area. The food and drink industries play such an important part in our local and regional economy. People don’t realise just how lucky we are in this part of the country. If you travel elsewhere in the UK, it is so rare to find such a thriving and vibrant food and drink scene. At the core of our vision behind the show, is the fact that we want to capture and celebrate one of the many amazing things about living in Devon – the amazing food and drink we get to enjoy.

You mentioned that you exercise in order to enjoy food, Nikki. Tell me a little more about that?

NIKKI: Yes, we run together actually, about twice per week. I have enjoyed running for many years now and Sara is now slowly ramping up the distance that she runs too. She’s got up to 4 miles at a time now and we’re working to increase that as time goes on.

And, apart from the incredible range of food and drink on offer, what else can we look forward to at the show in September?

SARA: Well, we are really excited to have Jim, Lucy and Natalie from the Exeter Cookery School at the show. They are such lovely guys and a real laugh too. They’ll be demonstrating on the main stage (in lovely kitchens provided by The Room Works, who we have partnered with) between some of the nationally/internationally known chefs. We’re also very excited to have Karen from Exeter Gin at the show. She is such an inspiration and we love her gin!

NIKKI: In terms of big names, we have Tom Kerridge at the show on the Saturday. Tom is a two-Michelin starred chef with his own books and a regular on TV shows such as MasterChef, Saturday Kitchen and Food and Drink. He is a big character and his laugh is so infectious! We then have Jean Christophe Novelli at the show on the Sunday. He is also a two-Michelin starred chef who is regularly on TV and was recently referred to as ‘Britain’s favourite French Chef’. We’re delighted to have Jean Christophe at the show. Finally, we have Polly Guy, the 2016 Champion of Champions on Come Dine With Me. She will be at the show on both days and brings a wonderful energy and vibrancy with her.

SARA: We’re also hoping to have the grand final of the Exeter Chiefs vs Exeter City Bake Off. It’s not 100% confirmed yet, but they are tied 1-1 and we’re hoping, subject to player availability, to have the deciding Bake Off live at the show.

Wow! What a great variety of local, national and international talent. And how can people find out more about the show or book their tickets?

NIKKI: If people visit they can find out about the event in great detail and book their tickets too. They are going fast though so don’t wait around! You snooze you lose!


Well, Sara and Nikki, I for one cannot wait and we are delighted to be partnering with such a positive and exciting show. We wish you all the best with the preparations and we’ll see you in September!

About The Author

Leave a reply

News Categories

Recent Videos