The exhibition season is upon us. In the next few weeks anyone who has the faintest interest in home improvement can choose between Interiors UK in Birmingham (22- 25 January), Surface Design in London (7-9 February) or the power tools and colour charts of Totally DIY (5-7 February). And if, perchance, your resolution was to finally get round to building your own home this year, there's more. You could try the National Home Building and Renovating Show (29 March to 1 April) or EcoBuild at London's ExCel (20-22 March). This year it's estimated there will be between 1,500 and 2,000 exhibitions and last year they contributed in excess of £10bn to the economy.
It seems we are no longer content with trudging to our local high street on a Saturday afternoon to buy stuff, now we want our shopping experience to be a "show" complete with live "theatre" and celebrity appearances. And what's more we want to pay to do it. This year the price of an average ticket to one of these shows is now around £14.
"The exhibitions industry has shown amazing resilience in the face of the economic downturn," says Karim Halwagi of the Association of Event Organisers. "People appreciate the power of face-to-face business. It's permission marketing, whereby you're allowing a company to promote to you by virtue of the fact you have chosen to go to the show. You don't get that with television and print, where adverts appear before you randomly."
Over the past few years, Halwagi says, there has been a big shift towards making the shows much broader. "Trade shows have moved on from the old aisles and booths format," he says. "Now they are much more interactive, featuring live events, expert seminars and much more audience participation."
As co-owner of a new flooring company, The Colour Flooring Company, at the tail end of last year I suddenly found myself plunged into the wonderful world of the trade show. In quick succession, we took our flooring first to 100% Design in Earls Court, then Grand Designs Live in Birmingham NEC followed by the Ideal Home Show Christmas in November.
It was a sitting-round-the-kitchen-table, spur of the moment decision to sign up to 100% Design, which we did a week before the show was due to open.
It was a steep learning curve. Did we want a shell scheme or space only? A raised floor or a flush one? Did we want spotlights or were we going to bring our own? We had no idea. The costs started spiralling – the space itself, which was just 2m x 4m, cost almost £3,000. We gave stylist Beth Corner (no relation) two days to come up with a design for the stand and asked cabinet-maker Tom Perkins from Quendon Interiors to create a bespoke desk to house our flooring samples. Then after navigating the Earls Court car park in a hired van and a day setting up, we were ready to go.
The good thing about 100% Design is that it's an edited show – every exhibitor has to pass under the discerning eye of creative director Julieann Humphryes, head of design for Yoo – so quality is high.
"We only want original design, we don't do copies and presentation is key," says Peter Massey, exhibition director. Also, crucially it's a trade show, so you're not going to find gaggles of day-trippers out to bag a bargain, but instead architects, designers and retailers all serious about doing business. Last year nearly 19,000 went, so it's a big, highly targeted audience. We were inundated. We spent four days frantically chopping samples to keep up with demand and repeating our spiel about our lovely colours and how hardwearing it is, until we were blue in the face.
Bouyed by this success we signed up to Grand Designs Live at the Birmingham NEC. Again, it was a last minute decision. They clearly needed to shift the final few spaces as we managed to barter the price of the stand down by more than £1,000.
It all felt a very long way from the slick Channel Four show from which it was a spin-off. Two of the busiest stalls were the burger stand and the man flogging plastic photo frames, who drew crowds all weekend. It was a bit pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap. And what's more our stand was squeezed in the kitchen section between ovens and fridges – utterly useless for anyone shopping for a floor.
Weeks later it was on to the Ideal Home Show Christmas. Again we got a knockdown rate (£1,300 down from £2,800) and again it was the market-style traders who were doing a roaring trade – those magic vegetable peeling kits were flying out. Because it was the Christmas show, it was all about fake snow, gospel choirs and people stuffing cheap gifts into carrier bags. The man on the stall opposite, who'd also got in for a cheap rate, resorted to doing magic tricks to drum up interest in his water purification system. The woman on the vertical garden stall sold nothing all weekend and the patio furniture stand to our left was just left unmanned all weekend. Still, we had a prime view of the "theatre" and got to see Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen gabbling on about something and another celebrity, who I couldn't name, showing how to make festive flower arrangements. It felt very much as if the movement towards the live act has been taken one step too far.
There were many things we gleaned from the vantage point of our shiny new stand. If you are serious shopper, forget the Christmas shows – they have moved too far away from the original point. Also steer clear of the shows that come heavily laden with celebrities. It's all very well cramming in to watch Linda Barker divulging the secrets of her signature look, but really, what's the benefit? Also never go on the morning of the first day. At the NEC our first lot of frazzled visitors arrived to tell us they'd been queuing for two hours toiget in the car park. The best times to go are after three in the afternoon when the crowds thin out, or better still on the late night opening (most shows do one during the run) when it's lovely and quiet.
On the upside there are definitely bargains to be had. Most traders offer special discounts just for the duration of the show, but avoid being taken in (at the NEC there were an inordinate number of visitors wandering round with twee decorative wicker baskets which someone was clearly knocking out cheap). The best time to get real bargains is the final few hours of the last day of the show. This is when people are thinking about taking down their stalls and display product can be picked up at big discounts.
At the NEC, state-of-the-art cookers that had been on display for five days were going for half price.
Ultimately for us it was worth it, our sales shot up. Compared to the response we got from a couple of adverts we'd placed in the press, the trade show won hands down.
We failed to implement a discount code for each exhibition, so have no idea how much business we got from each show and so no idea if we'll ever do it again. As I say, it was a steep learning curve.
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