25 May 2024, 11:43
By Furniture News May 16, 2014

Behind the new January Furniture Show

2015 will be the 25th year in which a furniture show has taken place at the Birmingham NEC – despite UBM’s decision to decamp to London, the new January Furniture Show is poised to ensure that the venue remains the transactional hub of the UK furniture trade. Following last month’s interview with UBM’s Suzie Ager, Paul Farley talks to the fixture’s new guardians, Laraine Janes and Theresa Raymond …

Already at 90% capacity, the January Furniture Show, taking place between 13-15th of the month, is set to be the sector’s biggest fair next year – a show of industry support for the traditional exhibition fixture so strong that it really brings UBM’s decision to relocate into question. “It’s one of those ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ kind of situations,” says co-director Laraine.

Currently set over halls 1, 2, 3 and 3A of the NEC – with the option to extend if necessary – the 2015 event “won’t be very much smaller than the show which ran this January”, the halls full to the back wall with “exhibitors and nothing else”.

“We won’t have champagne bars, feature areas or huge gangways,” adds Theresa. “Every square metre available will be used for exhibitors, and hopefully that way we’ll create a busy, lively environment with a good buzz.”

Already, the pair has succeeded in bringing back several companies which had become “disillusioned” with UBM’s event including Whitemeadow, Wood Bros and Origin Red. The BFM was quick to voice its support, as were the likes of Alstons, Sherborne and Buoyant Upholstery to commit to the new venture.

When UBM announced that it was terminating the established Interiors UK format in favour of an ExCeL, London-based fair – The Furniture Show at May Design Series – the NEC’s response, in the form of the January Furniture Show offered a lifeline to a huge number of suppliers for which the venue and timeline had long worked well.

“We had a few calls before Christmas from exhibitors that had been approached about moving the show to ExCeL,” explains Theresa, “but, after the New Year, we were absolutely bombarded. Most of the people that rang were outraged – there was a lot of anger – that their opinion hadn’t been asked, and what had worked for them for years was just being withdrawn without any discussion.”

“We got so many phone calls that the decision was made within minutes – there was no soul searching”

In the April issue of Furniture News, UBM’s Suzie Ager explained that the decision to relocate the event was based in part on the results of market – principally visitor – research. “I haven’t spoken to a single exhibitor who’s said that they were contacted by a research company,” says Laraine.

Based in an office in St Albans, and boasting a team of five – soon to be seven – Furniture & Gift Fairs is not a big company, yet its rich background in furniture exhibitions made it the obvious choice to launch the new event. Alongside its management of the Manchester Furniture Show, the company has organised a wealth of furniture exhibitions and export missions, often in concert with institutions such as the BFM and NBF.

Laraine and Theresa have worked in the trade for over 30 years, but the January Furniture Show represents the biggest proposition they’ve yet faced.

“We were in a situation where we were working a shorter length of time,” says Laraine, “and we weren’t actively looking to launch another exhibition at that moment in time – but when the opportunity came along there was no hesitation, we just grabbed it. We got so many phone calls that the decision was made within minutes – there was no soul searching.”

“The calibre of the companies who contacted us really forced that decision,” adds Theresa, “because they were the kind of companies that if they sign, others would follow.” The opportunity also opened new doors for Theresa and Laraine, who are pleased to be working with the likes of Alfrank Designs and Sofa Brands International for the first time.

Those early phone calls revealed the great faith many of the industry’s principals had in Furniture & Gift Fairs’ ability to plug the hole left by UBM’s departure. “They trusted us to deliver what we say we’re going to deliver,” says Laraine.

“One of our strengths is the length of time we’ve both worked in the furniture industry,” continues Theresa. “And I say furniture industry and not exhibition industry, because, right from the beginning, we’ve been firmly ensconced in furniture. Of course, we’ve developed so many personal relationships over that time – we’ve never needed a research company to tell us what the industry feels.

“I think that the difference between us and other exhibition organisers is that we care about the furniture industry. We’ve earned our living out of it, we listen to what exhibitors and visitors say, and we make our own decisions. We’re a small company, we’re not governed by some unrealistic board of directors, it’s not just another show sector for Laraine and I – it’s been our life for over 30 years.”

“It might not be the biggest exhibition centre in Europe, but it is the busiest, and I think that’s very telling”

“And we’re approachable,” Laraine interjects. “If anyone rings in to this office, the chances are they’re going to speak to Theresa or I – we’re not this great big team of faceless people that they’ll never meet again.”

Industry empathy aside, it’s difficult to question UBM’s decision when one considers that the size and visitor count of the event has halved over the last six years. “We’re still at the tail end of a recession, and of course that affected sales and visitor numbers, but [UBM] were trying to be all things to all people,” says Laraine. “The show had diversified into so many different markets it had become diluted.”

This is why the exhibition will once again be known as a ‘furniture’ show – putting the core offering front and centre. “There’s accessories there, of course – but it is a furniture show first and foremost,” explains Theresa.

And then, of course, there’s the venue. “It might not be the biggest exhibition centre in Europe, but it is the busiest,” says Theresa, “and I think that’s very telling.” The pair cite the NEC’s numerous benefits – on-site international airport, railway station connected to the whole of the UK and parts of Europe, the M1, M5, M6, M6 toll, M40, M42, and over 20,000 free car parking spaces – and the casino, hotel, retail outlets and a restaurant and entertainment complex currently in development.

The pair currently has a five-year plan to re-establish the event, without ever taking it “beyond five halls”. “Our primary target is to bring back a show that is a national event for UK retailers, both multiple and independent,” explains Laraine.

However, despite the popularity of the ‘back to basics’ approach espoused early on, Laraine and Theresa are working hard to imbue the January Furniture Show with progressive elements. Talks are taking place with the AIS, NBF and BCFA concerning greater co-operation between the wider industry and the show. Through Hotel and Hotelier magazine, the BIID and SBID, the organiser hopes to broaden visitor reach through the hospitality and interior design sectors.

Despite having a domestic focus, the fair will be promoted overseas through selected international media. Indeed, a relationship has already been developed with Koelnmesse, the organiser of imm cologne, thanks to discussions that forced an about-turn in the Birmingham show’s dateline early on. 

“Had it clashed with [imm] cologne’s first three days, it would’ve been a nightmare from the point of view of retailers,” says Laraine. “All the big retailers rang in and said they’d love to support us with our new event, but couldn’t because they had to to go to Cologne to secure the exclusives at the very beginning of that show.

“It does bring our show slightly nearer to the Christmas break – but that is only for this first edition. In subsequent years, [imm] cologne will run ahead of us, and we will open the following Sunday.”

“This’ll be the only year we open on a Tuesday,” clarifies Theresa. “We’ll go back to opening on a Sunday after that.”

It seems that ‘back to basics’ is more of a mantra for the fair’s debut than an ongoing principle – but it is probable that cost-cutting measures will become the norm. “There won’t be any feature areas, but that’s because we need all of the stand space we can get – and we’re not going to be running any seminars in the first year,” says Laraine. “That’s not to say that in subsequent years that we won’t put in things that we feel that the industry want to see.”

"In subsequent years, [imm] cologne will run ahead of us, and we will open the following Sunday"

“Seminars are very expensive,” notes Theresa. “[UBM] did a great job of getting well-known speakers in, but those people come at a very high price. I also think – and it’s been said to us over the years, so many times – that the exhibitors don’t want their buyers being dragged off the exhibition floor to go and listen to a speaker for an hour. They want them there, looking at their stand, buying their product.

“I don’t think extra features will make more buyers come – more students and interior designers, maybe, but that’s not what this show is about.”

Regardless of this view, the organisers are targeting a diverse visitor base, spreading the message not just through trade magazines and websites, but through the likes of FX and Icon. For the first time, due to the scope of the January fair, Furniture & Gift Fairs has outsourced its PR activities and social media, to AKA PR. “But we can still cover all the jobs that need to be covered,” says Laraine. “We will never employ 40 people to work on this event – it’s not necessary. That’s a massive overhead that’s got to be paid for.”

Luckily for Laraine and Theresa, the January Furniture Show is, in many ways, more of a continuation than a launch, so the bulk of the trade will be aware it’s taking place already – their biggest task now is to encourage them to attend, but they are confident that an economic backdrop of growing consumer confidence will help them deliver results.

The dust has settled since UBM’s announcement shook the trade back in January. It’s clear from the number of exhibitors already committed that the promise of continuity has won the January Furniture Show a great deal of favour – yet the reasons behind UBM’s departure from the traditional slot will cast a cloud of uncertainty over the proceedings until Tuesday 13th January comes around and visitors begin to arrive at the Birmingham venue.

However, there’s little reason to doubt that the new fair will hit the ground running. “We only realised a few days ago that it will be 25 years since the Midlands Reps and Agents Association moved their show from Stafford showgrounds to the NEC,” says Theresa, “Why would anybody be surprised by the positive reaction to the January Furniture Show, when the industry has, by and large, been happy to go there every January for 25 years?”

This article was published in the May issue of Furniture News magazine.

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